Friday, October 17, 2008

Conrad Herwig - Part 2

- [C] Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved. With his Criss Cross recording [1254] of Que Viva Coltrane in 2003 which he co-lead with trumpeter Brian Lynch, Conrad returns to and expands upon the “Latin-side” theme albums that he began in 1996 with The Latin Side of John Coltrane. As we shall see, this is the beginning of a concerted effort by Herwig to re-cast the music from a number of trend setting recordings from Jazz’s Golden Age in the 1950’s and 1960’s into Latin Jazz as a way of allowing the listener to hear this music from a fresh and different perspective. Terrell Kent Holmes writing in explains more about the context for this recording and its music: “The world will never pay enough homage to the music of John Coltrane. Having his music translated into the Latin idiom isn't a huge stretch, considering that many of his tunes had strong Afro-Cuban roots. Placing Trane en clave was a challenge that trombonist Conrad Herwig and trumpeter Brian Lynch happily accepted when they conceived Que Viva Coltrane , a humble offering to the immortal saxophonist in which they successfully translated some of Trane's most famous tunes into the Latin idiom. "Lonnie's Lament" showcases the chops of flautist Mario Rivera, Herwig and Lynch, all of whom play excellent solos. The intricate arrangement of "Miles' Mode" is played in mambo rhythm, with Rivera's baritone sax leading the brass charge. Robby Ameen and Richie Flores solo on drums and congas, respectively, before Herwig and Lynch's spirited exchange take the song out on high. Pianist Edsel Gomez states the melody on "Wise One," with Herwig's lovely solo leading into the doubling of the rhythm and crisp soloing by Lynch and Gomez. John Benitez' wicked electric bass at the beginning of "Countdown" may recall Coltrane's blistering opening, but it certainly has its roots laid down in Jaco Pastorius. The brass picks up the baton and races to the finish, with Trane's signature at the end declaring victory. Lynch's flugelhorn is the standout among the fine brass arrangement of "Central Park West," and "Grand Central" features another mean bari solo by Rivera. The breezy, arrangement of "Straight Street" evokes the warmth of a Caribbean island, providing a relaxing respite before "Locomotion" brings things to a rousing end. Although Coltrane inspired this fine disc, the arrangements and overall spirit owe as much to Tito Puente and Machito as they do to Trane. It's almost a certainty that somewhere, all three men are beaming like proud parents.” And in a separate review from the same source, C. Andrew Hovan had these comments about the recording: “In recent years, trumpeter Brian Lynch and trombonist Conrad Herwig were part of one of Eddie Palmieri’s better late period ensembles, proving to be an incendiary addition to a high-octane ensemble dedicated to the fiery hybrid most folks refer to as salsa. It’s perfectly logical then for the pair to team up for a recent project fashioning Latin jazz treatments of several John Coltrane classics. Wisely, they have chosen to bring on board a crew of musicians steeped in the tradition, with pianist Edsel Gomez and drummer Robby Ameen being particularly integral to the overall success of the music. On the whole, Herwig and Lynch have chosen well, and each arrangement grooves with its own identity, still retaining the essence of the original….” In 2004, Conrad was back at Systems Two Recording Studios again for Gerry Teekens and Criss Cross this time to produce Obligation [1268] which was essentially produced around a Hammond B-3 Organ trio sound with Seamus Blake [ss/ts] back to help form the front-line. Mark Whitfield is on guitar and he is joined by relative newcomer Kyle Koehler on Hammond and drummer Gene Jackson who is back again after appearing on Hieroglyphia. With Conrad’s opening track original Forget About Me, there’s even a boogaloo-gospel-soul-funk sound to evoke memories of Blue Note’s classic recordings done in this style. Not-to-be-missed is the outstanding ‘dual’ between Herwig and drummer Jackson on the upper tempo title track that demonstrates the incredible techniques of some of today’s young players on their respective instruments. In his insert notes, C. Andrew Hovan points out many aspects about this album’s qualities so incisively that I thought it best to share them in their entirety. Mr. Hovan has written so often and so well about Conrad’s music that it would appear that he has become an authority on the subject and worthy of such deference and respect. "Jazz fans tend to be fanatical about those artists that most directly speak to their own musical tastes. Over time, a sense of familiarity with the musical personalities of their iconic favorites becomes entrenched, followed by categorization based on style and genre. Those already familiar with Conrad Herwig's musical endeavors over the past 20 years are likely to speak to his great versatility, at home in both jazz and Afro-Cuban musical circles as he is in leading his own varied projects. Then there's the undeniable technical proficiency he has attained that puts him in a class by himself, a valuable asset for the kind of advanced hard bop that serves as foundation for his usual modus operandi. All the foregoing is to suggest that Herwig fans who think they know his methodology quite well will be somewhat surprised by the revelations offered with Obligation, essentially an organ combo record within the soul-jazz continuum. On closer consideration however, the genesis for this venture can be traced via other projects that have included Herwig, most notably time spent with Don Braden in an organ group documented on the saxophonist's album The New Hang. "This was a project I've wanted to do for a long time because I'm a B3 fanatic," Herwig says with a palpable degree of satisfaction. "My grandmother played organ in church and she always had an organ in her house. We used to play hymns together when I was a little kid. Of course, coming up I collected records by Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Jimmy McGriff, and all the heavy cats. Then, when I first came to New York, I was playing with Jack McDuff." Over the course of seven previous Criss Cross discs, Herwig has challenged himself by changing up the ensemble groupings and tailoring his compositions to the talents at hand. "What I try to do with every record is have a different combination of instruments or play with musicians I've wanted to record with on my own but haven't had the chance to," Herwig says. "In thinking of what I wanted to do with this disc, I shot some ideas at [producer] Gerry [Teekens] and suggested an organ quintet because I wanted to do something with the combination of tenor and bone." In assembling the cast of characters for this new undertaking, Herwig had no problem in putting together a cohesive unit with individual talents that he's developed a musical history with over time. "It's an organic thing in that we're playing around the city in different projects," the trombonist explains. "Then we go into the studio and it sort of picks up from there because you feel familiar with all the cats." As for Mark Whitfield, making his debut appearance on Criss Cross, Herwig first encountered the precocious guitarist while on the previously mentioned McDuff gig. "Dave Stryker was in that band and then when he left Mark Whitfield started with the group and that's how I first met Mark, which was over 20 years ago," states Herwig. "One of the great things about Mark is his versatility because he approaches the guitar like he was a horn player, but at the same time he can approach it from the totally traditional role." A Criss Cross veteran with four of his own sessions as a leader for the label, Seamus Blake has recently spent some time of his own working in organ combos. He's gigged with Project 0 featuring Ingrid Jensen and up and coming organist Gary Versace and on Wycliffe Gordon's Dig This! (Criss 1238) the saxophonist was part of an ensemble that included Sam Yahel. "Seamus and I have played together so much that there's a trust level that allows us to experiment, but know that there's a safety net there," says Herwig about his front line partner. Both Gene Jackson and Kyle Koehler have previously shared the stage with Herwig, the former appearing with the trombonist on Hieroglyphica (Criss 1207) and the latter making "the new hang" with Don Braden's organ group. "Gene and Kyle are both from Philly and so we got a Philly sound and groove going," Herwig says. "Of course, Mark is from Manhattan and Seamus is from Canada and I'm an Army brat, so it was a great experience to have all these guys come together." Coming as no surprise to those familiar with his gifts as a composer, Herwig set out to avoid the clichés associated with your run-of-the-mill organ record. As he explains, "I told the guys I didn't think I was going to have any traditional fatback organ stuff on the record and then I ended up writing some because I think it's impossible to escape that sound because it's in the tradition. But the other tunes are more of my kind of thing in the post '60s harmonic language, but transmuted onto the organ. In fact, I would really be remised not to talk about Larry Young, who is one of my all-time heroes. Larry really made the breakthrough on organ by taking John Coltrane's harmonic language and putting it on the B3. So that's the kind of thing that we humbly try to emulate, [but] with the modern harmonic language." Starting things out with a catchy line that nonetheless has all the substance you'd expect from a Herwig original, Forget About Me speaks with deceptive simplicity. "This is one of the more traditional tunes on the record, with an Eddie Harris vibe," says Herwig. "It's blues like, but without being a blues." Keep an ear out for Whitfield's stinging contribution and some heated exchanges between Herwig and Blake before the tune's conclusion. By contrast, Solid Ground is a buoyant waltz that hits a gentler stride and a more relaxed groove. "One of the concepts that I went for here was that less is more," Herwig asserts. "I had actually written several different versions and arrangements of these tunes with more complicated harmonies and then as I played through them I gravitated towards more simplicity. There are not many musicians like Seamus that I would feel comfortable playing with in unison. In fact, it's sometimes easier to play in harmony than it is to actually be simple and explore the melody like we do on this one." Lazy Bones is a title that essentially seems to match the languid feel of the tune's serpentine melody. "That repeated figure and vamp [in the beginning] is an Elvin Jones-like figure, but it's basically an E flat minor blues," says Herwig. "I have this theory that all successful jazz musicians can play the blues on any tune at any time. The thing is, they don't necessarily have to play the blues, but they give you the feeling that they could and that's one of the qualities of jazz that I totally love." Whitfield's solo includes some cutting single-line runs in the Grant Green tradition to match Koehler's Larry Young vibe. A reflective composition of great beauty, Herwig calls Lua Flora "a piece that is very close to my heart." The tune's namesake is the daughter of guitarist Jose Netto, a close friend of Conrad's. "Tragically she was taken from us in an automobile accident at a very young age. The first part is really a reflection of sadness and then the second part of the tune that goes into the major vamp is about being uplifted and providing affirmation. Seamus' whole solo is magical, with Gene playing pandeiro and Mark playing acoustic guitar." Containing its share of heated exchanges, Obligation is notable for a remarkable conversation between Herwig and Jackson that finds both men at the peak of their abilities. "Playing with Gene is just amazing," enthuses Herwig. "But then when you listen back to it, you wonder how you had enough energy to come up with your own solo." For those who have been following Herwig since his early days, you might find something familiar about Tell Me a Riddle, a line that was featured on the trombonist's first recording. "It's a journey through a complex set of changes," boasts Herwig. "it has some surprise resolutions and different kinds of chord qualities. It's one of the first tunes that I ever wrote and I still play it a lot, so I figured it would be a fun thing to play with Seamus because he tackles changes so well." The session concludes on a thoughtful note with The Blue Shore of Silence, a title taken form a collection of poems about the sea by Chilean author and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda. "My wife is from Argentina and so we read a lot of the South American authors," Herwig says about the inspiration for the piece and the reverence he has for Neruda's work, a man that he calls "arguably one of the greatest poets of all time." Thus comes to a close the latest chapter in the ongoing musical adventures of Conrad Herwig. It's a disc that the trombonist rightly feels is "very listenable," a quality that he finds particularly gratifying these days. "I'm overjoyed with the guys in the band. They're all virtuoso players and good friends too. When you're able to communicate and have a feeling of trust, you can take chances and [then] it's really a dream come true." C. Andrew Hovan - All About Jazz, Jazz Review, Down Beat 2004 was to be a banner year for Conrad as during it he also released Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis [Half Note Records 4530] which would be followed a couple of years later by Sketches of Spain Y Mas [Half Note Records 4539]. The music for both came from the same week-long stint at the Blue Note in New York by an all-star that Herwig put together expressly to play and record the music that appeared on these two CDs. Reviewing a concert performance by Conrad’s group of the music from Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis that took place on January 31, 2004 at the University of Missouri, Kansas City Conservatory Jazz Festival sponsored by Down Beat, Michael Shutts noted: "Conrad Herwig is going Latin again. And no one's complaining Herwig, the 43 year old trombone extraordinaire and winner of the 2002 Downbeat Critics' Poll for Jazz Trombonist of the Year, has always had an affinity for Latin jazz. He's a veteran of the bands of Mario Bauza, Paquito D'Rivera and Eddie Palmieri, and his 1996 release, The Latin Side of John Coltrane was nominated for a Grammy. Herwig's latest project, Another Kind of Blue: The Latin Side of Miles Davis, features Brian Lynch on trumpet, Mario Rivera on bari saxophone, Pedro Martinez on hand percussion, Robbie Ameen on drums, Ruben Rodriguez on bass, and Edsel Gomez on piano. The group played in front of a sold-out Pierson Auditorium at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music to close the 2004 Downbeat/UMKC Conservatory Jazz Festival on January 31st. The septet opened with their take on the Miles Davis classic tune “Seven Steps to Heaven.” This particular arrangement stayed close to Miles' original interpretation of the tune from the album of the same name. Herwig quickly revealed why his staccato, rhythmically inventive style lends itself well to Latin jazz, taking an energetic turn at the mic after Lynch and Rivera had finished blowing. One could easily identify the trombonists in the audience; most of them were already shaking their heads in disbelief. After an interesting version of “Solar,” Herwig introduced legendary altoist Bobby Watson, who currently heads up the jazz program at UMKC. Watson is a beloved figure in Kansas City; after his warm reception, Herwig jokingly suggested that Mr. Watson consider a run at the presidency. Truly a saxophonist's saxophonist, Watson never seems to mail in a solo. Almost irrevocably, Watson's solos reach a boiling point, a whirlwind of yelping altissimo and quarter-tone laced licks, that stoke some sort of fire deep within the listener. This performance was a prime demonstration, as Watson quickly stole the show. The band continued with some tunes from their latest CD, which includes the five tunes from Miles' Kind of Blue album and “Petits Machins” from Filles de Kiliminjaro. One of the highlights was the group's rendition of “Freddie Freeloader.” One could wonder how such a simplistic tune could be transformed into a hot Latin piece, but Herwig's gang managed to do it. Instead of taking their solos after the original melody statement, Miles' trumpet solo from the original album was harmonized for four horns and played as an extension of the melody. The band's version of “So What” really grooved, almost violently, evolving from Afro-Cuban, to funk and rock rhythms at the discretion of the aforementioned Ameen and Martinez. Another highlight was Watson's soprano solo on “Blue in Green.” Herwig opened the tune with some soulful, almost wailing, trombone work, and then it was the saxophonist's turn. Watson's soprano sound and tone has drastically improved since his early days as a leader (i.e. “And Then Again” from his album entitled “Jewel”). Although no group has ever rivaled the emotional power of the original recording, this interpretation of the tune was still magnificently beautiful. The group proceeded with “Flamenco Sketches,” which opened with a vocal/percussion feature for Cuban percussionist Pedro Martinez on congas. Martinez was a bright spot all night long, showing why he is one of the hottest up-and-coming latin players in the world today. Finally, the set closed with “Petits Machins” which provided a fitting end to a great night of music." And Bill Milkowski, a regular contributor to Jazz Times and Jazziz magazines offers the following description of the context and the music that appears on these recordings. “It was back in March of 2003 that trombonist-bandleader Conrad Herwig brought a stellar nine-piece ensemble into the Blue Note for a weeklong engagement billed as "The Latin Side of Miles Davis." Three nights were recorded, subsequently yielding 2004's Grammy-nominated Another Kind of Blue, documenting the group's reinvention of Miles' landmark work from 1959, Kind of Blue, within the framework of Afro-Cuban and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Volume 2 focuses on another Miles masterwork, Sketches of Spain, his stunning 1960 orchestral collaboration with Gil Evans that has remained an enduring jazz classic. The centerpiece of this vibrant live outing is a stirring, 25-minute Sketches of Spain suite that incorporates Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez" with elements of the Gil Evans compositions "Saeta" and "Solea." Following an opening flurry of churning Afro-Brazilian hybrid rhythms, guest soloist Paquito D'Rivera settles into a marvelous clarinet improvisation over the hauntingly beautiful Rodrigo theme. Herwig follows with an expressive trombone solo, eventually delving into multiphonics as the band drops out. Percussionist Richie Flores then explodes with a whirlwind, unaccompanied conga solo that lights up the bandstand. Trumpeter and co-musical director Brian Lynch makes a beautiful homage to Miles with his mellow Harmon mute solo on this dramatic Rodrigo passage, then switches to bold open horn playing for the trumpet call on Gil's "Saeta." D'Rivera returns for a sensuous alto sax solo over the moving "Solea" section, followed by some exceptional playing by the exciting young Puerto Rican pianist Edsel Gomez, who runs the gamut from classical introspection to turbulent, Cecil Tayloresque abstraction in the course of his dynamic and unpredictable solo.
The Y Mas portion of this inventive Afro-Latin collection includes an infections and eminently danceable son montuno of the classic Miles vehicle "Solar," a kinetically-charged jazz mambo rendition of "Seven Steps to Heaven" (the title track to a 1963 Miles recording) and a concluding percussive blowout on "Petit Machins" (from Filles de Kilimanjaro) that turns both drummer Robbie Ameen and conga maestro Flores loose for some heated Afro-Cuban jamming. The music from Sketches of Spain is not something that you would normally find in a Fake book on the campuses of North Texas State or Berkley College of Music. In fact, it's very rarely ever played by working jazz ensembles. "Never before had I ever had a chance to improvise on those forms," says the world class trombonist who apprenticed in big bands led by Buddy Rich, Clark Terry, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Mel Lewis and also spent the past 20 years working with master salsa musician Eddie Palmieri. "It's not lead sheet type tunes that we're playing here, but rather we're using the themes as a vehicle for improvisation. So playing this music gave us a chance to freely express ourselves, to use different textures and put our own slant on it." Interpreting Miles' music through an Afro-Cuban/Afro-Caribbean prism was not only an inspired concept, it was also a personally rewarding experience for the band leader. "The thing I feel really blessed about with this project is that all the musicians who played on it are people that I've known and musicians that I've performed with for years," says Herwig. "Robbie Ameen is a great friend of mine. We've known each other and have been playing together since we were 15 years old. Paquito is someone I started playing with in 1984 and then played with later in his Havana-New York Connection band and in the United Nations Band, which he took over the leadership of after Dizzy passed. Brian Lynch and I have been playing together in Eddie Palmieri's band for 20 years. Dave Valentin played with us in Eddie's La Perfect II band a few years ago. And Mario Rivera, who is one of the icons of Afro-Cuban music, has also played in Eddie's band over the years, as did John Benitez and Richie Flores. So Eddie was a kind of catalyst for this project." The group empathy of this extended family of bona fide salseros can be heard from start to finish on this riveting take on Miles. —Bill Milkowski The year 2007 found Conrad [enjoyably] once again hard at work in the recording studios preparing A Jones for Tones Bones, a Criss Cross disc [1297] whose title is a pun on Chick Corea’s tune – Tone for Jones Bones. Back again with Conrad for this recording is Steve Davis to provide a two trombone front line along with newcomers Orrin Evans [p], Boris Kozlov [b] and Donald Edward [d]. To my ears, the most enjoyable track on the recording is a blues tribute to Frank Rosolino entitled 24 for Frank. All of the other tracks on the recording are dedicated to trombonist that Conrad has a high regard for as detailed in the following review as provided by none other than – C. Andrew Hovan. “Easily one of the most technically brilliant jazz trombonists in the history of the music, Conrad Herwig continues to establish a superb catalog of releases that document him in a variety of settings and musical genres. From quartet dates to his Latin projects, the key ingredients to any of Herwig's endeavors are a desire to keep the music moving forward and his skills as a brilliant arranger and gifted composer. Such marks his latest Criss Cross Jazz side, A Jones for Bones Tones, his second two-trombone set shared with Steve Davis and a unique forum for original pieces that pay tribute to some of Herwig's key bone influences. Utilizing friends from the Mingus Big Band, Herwig gains superb support from pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Donald Edwards. Of course, there's much to be gained by the complementary styles of Herwig and Davis. While the former is clearly identifiable by his overt and filigreed approach, the latter is just as distinguished, with a more melodic style and burnished tone. The wide variety of material here makes for a delightfully enjoyable recital that is well paced and just the right length. Based on hybrid Brazilian grooves are the two numbers “Eje's Dream” and “Raulzinho's Ride,” the former piece written for Swedish trombonist Eje Thelin and the latter dedicated to Raul De Souza. Tapping the Afro-Cuban mood that Herwig greatly favors, “Que Viva Barry” references Barry Rogers, a key member of salsa legend Eddie Palmieri's ensembles in the '60s. “For Albert” is the ringer of the set, providing a showcase for Herwig's chops, while paying homage to avant garde stylist Albert Mangelsdorff. The other pieces strike a balance between medium and up-tempo swingers with dedications to Frank Rosolino, Slide Hampton, J.J. Johnson, and Curtis Fuller. Herwig has come up with the perfect way to honor the legacies of several of jazz music's most important trombone stylists and in a way that is fresh and original. He could have easily pulled tunes or standards associated with these men and engaged in a mere nostalgia trip. Instead, his own compositions speak to his individuality, but also recall some of the distinguishing qualities of each honoree. Herwig and Davis certainly sound like they're having fun with the material and drummer Donald Edwards proves to be an interesting new find for this reviewer, his creative comping and refined sound adding immensely to the overall fine results.”. And, to close this retrospective on Conrad Herwig’s recording career over the past fifteen years or so, in 2008, he released another of his theme titles – The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter [Half Note [924535]. Here again, the music was drawn from a “live” performance by the band at the New York Blue Note on May 19, 2008. Appearing with Conrad on this date were old friends Brian Lynch [tp] Ronnie Cuber [bs], newcomer Luis Perdomo [p], Ruben Rodriguez [b], Robbie Ameen [d], and Pedro Martinez [congas]. Eddie Palmieri is the guest star on this date, but as described in Jeff Stockton’s review, he has a major impact on the proceedings. "Luis Perdomo is the regular pianist in Conrad Herwig's septet. He delivers a sterling, elegant solo on “Ping Pong,” the opening cut on The Latin Side of Wayne Shorter, recorded live at the Blue Note in New York. He anchors the first five songs with such skill that at the end of “This Is for Albert,” Herwig singles him out for the audience's applause. Unfortunately, it's to say goodbye. When salsa legend Eddie Palmieri takes over on piano, the concert is sent into orbit. Perdomo never stood a chance. ”Adam's Apple” may not be Shorter's greatest composition, but Palmieri makes a convincing case with syncopated montuno vamps that drive drummer Robby Ameen's funky backbeat and inspire baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber's sly comments and robust soloing. Palmieri taps into “Masquelero”'s heart of darkness and Herwig's tone on trombone is elusive and introverted, before trumpeter Brian Lynch takes a note-bending solo that slides itself into the piano's rhythms like mortar. Herwig and Lynch's simpatico playing is the highlight of “Footprints,” each of them winding similarly smooth and uncluttered solos around Pedro Martinez' congas. This is the third installment in Herwig's Latin Side series (following interpretations of Coltrane and Miles) and features silky virtuosic musicianship applied to intricate, intelligent, original compositions. Shorter's tunes are well-known and highly regarded as being flexible enough to suit a variety of instrumental lineups. Since he's gathered his own multi-horn groups in the past, the sound of these arrangements doesn't stray too far from his initial conceptions. But if you know a person who thinks jazz is difficult to get, lacks melody, or you can't dance to it, this is a CD that will change their mind." As those of you who have been following the pieces that appear on Jazz Profiles may recall, the editorial staff has continued with its concerted effort to highlight the work of players on the current Jazz scene whom it deems excellent in answer to a question rhetorically posed by Mike Hennessey, an esteemed writer on Jazz subjects whose work appears often on these pages. Mike’s rhetorical question is – “Where are the Gillespies, Parkers, Rollinses, Getzes, J.J. Johnsons and Miles Davises of the new Jazz generation? [To which he answers]. There aren’t any.” Hennessy goes on to explain that this question and answer is “… intended to imply that the general level of [Jazz] artistry and creativity today is in a state of decline.” To this charge, Hennessy offers two pertinent quotations, taken appropriately from members of today’s Jazz generation. The first is from trumpeter Terence Blanchard: “The real problem is that people keep looking for new Dizzys, Birds and Tranes instead of judging the new generation of musicians on their own terms and evaluating their music objectively. Why should they be expected to be clones of other musicians?” Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Blanchard’s partner at the time of this writing continues the sentiment by adding: “The general standard of playing among today’s young Jazz musicians is getting higher and higher all the time.” Any doubts about the merit contained in these two assertions by Blanchard and Harrison should be further swept away by listening to the supremely gifted trombone playing of Conrad Herwig and the many excellent musicians who join with him on the recordings reviewed in this piece. There is of course no way that these innovators and creators of the music will ever be replaced, after all, they had a colossal influence on the evolution of Jazz. But if in their larger-than-life-ness, they have served to inspire others to excel in their own Jazz skills and interpretations, then a close listening to Conrad Herwig and his musical colleagues on these discs will indicate that these Giants have done their job well. Another consideration in closing is that, if Conrad will permit the immodesty on my part, perhaps Clark Terry was right and a new Giant is with us!?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Conrad Herwig - Part 1

- [C] Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Conrad Herwig is one of the leading trombonists on today’s Jazz scene. This piece explores his work from two perspectives: [1] the Criss Cross Jazz recordings that he has made under his own name and also with groups led by tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and trumpeter Greg Gisbert and [2] the theme albums that he has developed both as a tribute to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and as a way of interpreting their music in Latin Jazz contexts. These Criss Cross and theme recordings span a 15 year period – 1992-2008. Not only do they provide a vehicle to hear the evolution of Conrad’s playing over this period, but they also serve as a platform for becoming familiar with the work of the many excellent contemporary who populate these sessions as sidemen. Herwig is an alumnus of North Texas State University in Denton, Texas (where he performed in its renown One O’clock Jazz Lab Band), and currently Professor of Jazz Trombone, Jazz Improvisation, and Jazz Composition/Arranging at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Conrad began his professional career in 1980 with the Clark Terry Big Band and later joined the Buddy Rich Orchestra for tours of the US and Europe. After setting-up a permanent residency in New York, he performed with Slide Hampton’s World of Trombones and Mario Bauza’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, as well as, with the orchestras of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mel Lewis, Bob Mintzer, Henry Threadgill, the Mingus Big Band and Eddie Palmieri. In small groups, Herwig also performed and recorded with Red Garland, Dave Liebman, Max Roach, Bob Stewart, Danilo Perez, David Sanchez, Greg Gisbert, Brian Lynch and Walt Weiskopf. In The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Sixth Edition, Richard Cook & Brian Morton comment that “Herwig is an exemplar of trombone technique. … He’s fast, he likes the high register, …, he only rarely sounds like Jay Jay, and he’s so sure-footed that you can’t imagine him knocking one over.” Clark Terry has commented about Conrad that we should “be on the lookout for a new giant” and Eddie Palmieri has labeled Conrad “the best trombonist on the planet.” Let’s begin this retrospective with Walt Weiskopf’s 1992 Criss Cross recording entitled Simplicity [Criss 1075 CD] on which he uses an unusual tenor sax, alto sax and trombone front line [Weiskopf-Andy Fusco-Herwig] although there is some precedence for this grouping in the Lighthouse All-Stars sound with Bob Cooper-Bud Shank- Frank Rosolino or Benny Golson’s New York Scene sound with Benny-Jimmy Cleveland-Gigi Gryce. In his insert notes, Neil Tesser offers this explanation as to what Weiskopf was looking for in terms of the sound of the music on this album and Herwig’s role in helping to produce it. “In the past, Weiskopf has issued his songs in the classic format of a saxophone-led quartet. On Simplicity, though, he leads an unusually instrumented sextet. The 34-year-old saxist has been toying around with the idea of a larger group for some time, in hopes of satisfying his desire to write for several instrumental voices. But his actual choice of horns involved other criteria. First, he knew that he wanted his tenor to play the featured role in the ensembles; for Weiskopf, this meant no trumpet (since that instrument usually takes the lead). But he also knew the importance of that slippery commodity called "chemistry," the invisible bonds that make Musicians A and B sound so much better together than A and C. So Weiskopf called upon trombonist Conrad Herwig and the little-known alto saxist Andy Fusco, both of them such good and longstanding friends that they really serve as surrogate brothers to the tenorist. Fusco, a dozen years older, played with Weiskopf in Buddy Rich's big band of the early 80s. "He was my mentor then," says Weiskopf. "For years, I could never understand why he was so under-recorded, and I wanted to do something about that on this project." Fusco, who teaches extensively, boasts an especially expressive tone, and his solos reveal the relaxed excitement of a jazz veteran. As for Herwig another veteran of the Rich band, who now sits behind Weiskopf in the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra - he and Weiskopf first met at the Interlaken Music Camp in Michigan, when both were 16. (But while they have maintained their friendship for nearly 20 years, this album marks their first recording together, other than one project with the Akiyoshi band.) Herwig has produced several of his own albums, on which he exhibits a well-grounded yet often exploratory musical personality.” Rounding out the group is an excellent rhythm section made up of Walt’s brother Joel on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. In addition to his wonderful section work on Weiskopf’s arrangements, Herwig distinguishes himself with facile and inventive solos on the seven originals by Walt [out of 9 tunes] which is not an easy thing to do given his limited exposure to their structure before the recording date. The same assemblage came together four years later on Walt Weiskopf’s 1996 album for Criss Cross [1147] entitled Sleepless Nights. Here again, with the exception of Harold Arlen’s evergreen, Come Rain or Come Shine, all of the tunes are originals with plenty of room for Walt, Andy and Conrad to “stretch out.” Sid Gribetz comments as follows in his inserts notes about the nature and the quality of the music on the album: “More than just a feature for the musicians on this album, who all display great artistry and sensitivity, the album is a setting for Weiskopf's great writing. Weiskopf as a player is firmly rooted in tradition but appears totally unique and undeniably identifiable. As a writer, he has managed to transcend the hard bop idiom and compose in a bright, fresh contemporary manner. However, unlike others who ply more ethereal contemporary airs, Weiskopf's writing retains the hard drive, swing, and emotional intensity of the best in jazz, while stretching the forms to more sophisticated compositions.” In 1996, Conrad released The Latin Side of John Coltrane [Astor Place TCD4003], the first of his “theme” albums. Its Latin version of Blue Train alone based as it is on sustaining and expanding the whole notes that make up the melody as played over a cooking 6/8 Latin rhythm is worth the “price of admission” with Ronnie Cuber’s cookin’ baritone sax solo on the tune thrown in as a bonus. The interplay between Brian Lynch and Conrad is magnificent on this track [and throughout the recording] as they trade fours bar solos over a montuna that indicates what kindred spirits they had become as band-mates in Eddie Palmieri’s orchestra before this album was issued. Douglas Payne offered this analysis of the recording on “A great idea beautifully executed by New York trombonist Conrad Herwig. The trombonist/arranger/musical director chooses Coltrane's most accessible material from a period that arguably spawned his best, most memorable work (1958-1964), devised simple, exploratory frameworks for each (recalling veteran Chico O'Farrill), then assembled an outstanding collection of musicians. In addition to Herwig's sinewy trombone, there's Brian Lynch on trumpet, Dave Valentin on flutes, Ronnie Cuber on baritone, Richie Beirach (who contributed to some of the arrangements), Danilo Perez and Eddie Palmieri on piano, Andy Gonzalez (from the Fort Apache Band) on bass and Milton Cardona on vocals and percussion. Selections are outstanding: “A Love Supreme,” “Blue Train,” (where Lynch trades fours with Herwig), “Afro Blue” (great flute solo by Valentine), “Naima” (beautifully featuring Beirach), “After The Rain,” “Impressions” and “India.” Throughout, Herwig solos flawlessly, with a sensitivity and fire that's reminiscent of the source of his tribute. Herwig's record, more than Joe Henderson's recent big-band event, sounds like a natural conclusion. The arrangements and performances work well together and the Latin environment seems a logical foundation for Coltrane's passions. One last note: Astor Place has done a beautiful job packaging The Latin Side of John Coltrane , sparing no expense for trendy art direction that recalls some of the very expensive covers Limelight Records put out in the mid 60s. Recommended.” Also in 1996, Conrad made another guest appearance on Criss Cross, this time with his Akiyoshi-Tabackin and Buddy Rich Big Band mate, trumpeter Greg Gisbert on the latter’s The Court Jester [1161]. Gisbert who lists both Clark Terry and Bobby Shew as “my trumpet role models” approached this album from his more recent tenure as a member of Maria Schneider’s orchestra with an emphasis on a four-horn treatment which created sounds and textures that were different in a small group setting. Joining Gisbert and Herwig on the front-line are Jon Gordon [ss/as] and Tim Ries [ss/as/fl] and they are supported by Janice Friedman [p], Jay Anderson [b] and Gregory Hutchinson [d], The following excerpt from Ted Panken’s insert notes to the recording demonstrate the thought and effort that Gisbert and Friedman put into the title track of the disc: "Gisbert and Friedman co-composed and arranged The Court Jester, the title track, a rousing modal tune with a pentatonic feel. "I conceived basically the form of the tune and wrote the little 8-bar melody, while Janice contributed the changes we blow over and came up with a middle part. Conrad Herwig blows in E-flat minor, then there's a contrapuntal improvisation by Janice and Jon Gordon in which they blow on an B7, then Tim Ries blows with just the drums, then I play over the changes. Each solo section has a completely different form." 1997 saw the debut of Heart of Darkness [1155], Conrad’s first album for Criss Cross under his own name. Joining him to form the front-line is Walt Weiskopf [ts/ss] and Stefon Harris on vibes along with a terrific rhythm section made up of Bill Charlap [p], Peter Washington [b] and Billy Drummond [d]. Bob Bernotas offered these insights into Conrad’s exciting conception for this recording in the following excerpts taken from his insert notes: At first glance, this new recording by trombonist Conrad Herwig … might bring to mind a venerable jazz tradition: "the blowing date." But, as Conrad insists, if this is a blowing date at all (and that's an awfully big if), then it's a blowing date for the '90s-and beyond. "It's all live to two-track, it was recorded in one day, it's basically semi -impromptu," he explains, "and I guess that's what I consider a blowing date. But there is more writing on this recording, although everybody is such a good musician they made it sound natural, organic. So maybe the definition of a blowing date has changed from just calling standards to presenting more original material. But it's still very spontaneous and very reactive." In other words, this disc offers the best of both worlds-the immediacy of a classic blowing date presented through meticulously conceived original compositions. The disc opens with the selected works of Conrad-the trombonist-composer (Herwig) and the writer (Joseph). "There are two short stories of Joseph Conrad's, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer, that I've been familiar with for several years and really enjoyed, and I had come back to when both of these pieces were composed. I do a lot of reading, I do a lot of introspective studying of books, and that's, sometimes, how I come up with titles." The first of this pair, Heart of Darkness, is, as Conrad describes it, "a through-composed melody. The soloing is what I call 'interactive jazz expressionism.' I like the twists and turns time-wise, and the interaction between the soloists and the rhythm section. It's not just straight-ahead blowing. It's an exchange of kinetic energy, stretching the forms, improvising with a pulse, reacting to what is happening at the moment." That sort of fluid expressionism is readily apparent throughout the track, and especially so, Conrad notes, in Wait Weiskopf's mysterious, almost surreal, tenor saxophone statement. …
Conrad's The Secret Sharer, the second of his literary-inspired pieces, is a straight-eight, medium-tempo tune ignited by trombone-soprano saxophone counterpoint. "Believe it or not, I wrote this after listening to Bartok's String Quartet No. 6," he explains. "I used that as a reference." Conrad's solo rises and falls in an arch-like pattern that peaks in a stunning sonic display, not of pyrotechnics for its own sake, but of improvisational daring and depth. Walt plays soprano sax in the heads here." And Conrad had this to say about pianist Bill Charlap’s contributions to the date: "Bill's not only a phenomenal virtuoso of the instrument," Conrad remarks with admiration, "but his conception and his musicality are great-and the way he comps. You know, 'comp' is short for I accompaniment,' but I think in his case it's short for 'compliment.' He's always listening, he's always reacting, and he's always spontaneous." Next up for Conrad on Criss Cross [1176] was the 1998 release of Osteology [the study of bones - more puns!]] on which Herwig is joined by fellow trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist James Genus and drummer Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts.
Dating back to the J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding trombone duo that was together for a few years in the mid-1950s, I’ve always been a fan of front lines made up of multiple trombones, and the Herwig and Davis duo as heard on this album does not disappoint. David Adler had this to say about Herwig and the album in his www.allaboutjazz review:
“A jazz guitarist with a penchant for provocation once called the guitar “the lamest jazz instrument? besides the trombone.” The big horn, with its awkward slide and low, nasal sound, is certainly a jazz underdog. Its important role in big bands is indisputable, but it is generally not thought of as a front man instrument. In other words, there’s never been a Charlie Parker or John Coltrane of the trombone. Thanks to the unwieldy mechanics of the instrument, trombonists typically haven’t been able to negotiate chord changes and fast tempos as fluidly as a sax or trumpet or piano player can. As a result, the trombone has not achieved the kind of iconic status in jazz that we associate with, say, the tenor saxophone.
But Conrad Herwig threatens to demolish all that. His technical facility is astounding. On his second Criss Cross release, Osteology, he recruits fellow trombonist Steve Davis of Chick Corea & Origin fame to complete his frontline. He didn’t name the record “osteology” — the study of bones — for nothing. The session comes across as a kind of trombone manifesto. If you’re thinking that two trombones up front might sound clunky and colorless, think again. This record is burning; it sounds more like a live show than a studio date. David Kikoski is on piano, James Genus is the bassist, and Jeff “Tain” Watts is behind the kit.
It’s remarkably easy to tell Herwig and Davis apart. Herwig is the more flamboyant of the two, tending toward the higher register and brandishing a brighter tone. Davis, favoring lower and fewer notes and a mellower tone, usually solos after Herwig. The disc opens with a seldom-played Coltrane number, “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” Other non-originals include Joe Henderson’s Caribbean-style “Fire”; a clever and unusually brisk 6/8 reading of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; the oft-played but wonderful ballad “You Don’t Know What Love Is”; and a blindingly fast “Devil May Care,” on which Kikoski solos with only his right hand, in the manner of Herbie Hancock on Miles Smiles.
Three Herwig originals complete the program. A contemplative Latin groove grounds “Kenny K.”, a moving tribute to the late Kenny Kirkland. Fittingly, piano is front and center, with Kikoski soloing first. “First Born,” which gets my vote for best track, is a medium blues that recalls Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner on Blue Note. Genus and Tain lock in and swing furiously. And “Osteology” closes the record with a fleet dual-trombone line over a breakneck swing tempo; Herwig and Kikoski solo at the peak of their respective powers.
There’s nothing too out of the ordinary here in terms of material; it’s as straightforward a hardbop/postbop menu as can be imagined. But the performances are outstanding and the energy is consistently high. The two trombonists surpass, to a startling degree, the supposed limitations of their instrument, supported by one of the most explosive rhythm sections I’ve heard on record in a while. Interestingly, Kikoski and Tain did not gel as well on Kikoski’s own Criss Cross effort The Maze. This time the ferocity just doesn’t let up.” The Kikoski-Genus-Watts rhythm section is back Conrad’s 1999 release on Criss Cross entitled Unseen Universe [1194], but he moves to Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and Seamus Blake on tenor to help create his most densely-voiced recording to date.
Turning to David Adler, once again, this time in a review for “Conrad Herwig's dazzling trombone chops and intelligent compositions make Unseen Universe, his third Criss Cross release, a stirring success. His sextet can maneuver around tight corners and yet attack with the force of a band twice its size. With Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, Seamus Blake on tenor and soprano sax, David Kikoski on piano, James Genus on bass, and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums, Herwig can be sure of the group's ability to bring lushly orchestrated charts to life and improvise with sterling clarity and brilliance. Conceptually, with the title track and also with pieces called "The Tesseract," "From Another Dimension," "Triangle," and "The Magic Door," Herwig seems preoccupied with geometry and some of its metaphysical implications. Even as he draws heavily on the '60s Blue Note sound as established by figures like Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock, Herwig stretches the limits of modern mainstream jazz with this all-original set.” After a one year lay-off, Conrad returned to Criss Cross and released Hieroglyphia [1207] in 2001. Also returning for this date is Bill Charlap whose consummate skills as a Jazz pianist seem to grow immeasurably with each passing year, and James Genus on bass. Gene Jackson is the newcomer on drums. C. Andrew Hovan provided this complimentary and perceptive review of the recording for the readers of www.allabout “It is without taking away anything from the founding fathers of this music to suggest that some of today's practitioners might be the most technically gifted lot to come along. Of course, they now have the entire rich history of jazz at their fingertips and slews of recordings for inspiration, yet there's no denying the talent at hand. Such is the case with 43-year-old trombonist Conrad Herwig. Hardly a Johnny Come Lately, Herwig has been on the scene for some 20 years playing in the bands of such legends as Buddy Rich and Eddie Palmieri, but has to be considered one of the most innovative players to come along since the days of J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller. Herwig's fourth and most recent date for the Dutch Criss Cross label, Hieroglyphica is a no holds barred quartet set of all originals that finds everyone working at full throttle. Without other horns to get in the way, this is the best place to experience Herwig at his most incendiary. Starting with a low moan and then breaking into wild glissandos through the upper register, Herwig kicks off the title track with a dazzling display that then builds to a frenetic climax with drums wailing and the rest of the ensemble participating in the collective frenzy. It's time for a quick cool down with the Latin-tinged 'The Orange Dove,' a breathy melody that is supported beautifully by pianist Bill Charlap's comping. And speaking of Charlap, for those of you only familiar with his demure and most recent trio dates, you'll be surprised at how much the pianist seems to step outside of the box here. In fact, some reckless abandon breaks forth on 'Island of the Day Before' as Herwig builds the tension before giving way to Charlap, who ushers in the calm before the storm and then hits with some heavy stuff of his own. And to get an idea of Herwig's range and the full complement of devices, look no further than a bluesy 'The Intruder.' Technically accomplished and still filled with communicative appeal, Hieroglyphica just may be Herwig's most brilliant recital to date.” A year later in 2002, producer Gerry Teekins brought Conrad back into the Systems Two Recording Studio in Brooklyn, NY for the recording of Land of Shadow [1230]. Incidentally, the purity of sound on all Criss Cross recordings is due to the outstanding skills of its recording engineer, Max Bollerman. Gerry Teekins has formed a working relationship with Max similar to the one that was in effect between Alfred Lion and Rudy van Gelder, the engineer who supervised the recording of the classic Blue Note albums of the 1950s and 1960s. On this recording, Conrad [with support no doubt from, Gerry Teekins, himself an accomplished Jazz drummer] demonstrates his appreciation of how special the affinity of rhythm section mates can be for the success of a recording by bringing back Dave Kikoski [p], James Genus [b] and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts [d] as participants on this date. In an effort to keep himself fresh through the use of new voices, Conrad turns to Tim Hagans on trumpet and relative newcomer, Ben Schachter on tenor saxophone. Dave DuPont on the recording in "Conrad Herwig is a musician on a mission to bring trombone into the front rank of jazz horns. And over his two-decade long career he's succeeded admirably in demonstrating the horn's flexibility. Still, his playing sometimes seems weighted down by that sense of mission. At his best, as he is consistently on Land of Shadow, he lets it rip, with the trombone's natural voice, complete with its slight slurs and slides, coloring the relentless torrent of notes. Though, as on most of his sessions, this date is devoted to his own originals, Herwig opens with a high-powered take on the standard "Lullaby of Leaves," which sets the tone and introduces his sidemen. Pianist David Kikoski is especially impressive here, stretching the tune's harmonic structure to its limits. His more lyrical side is shown on the date's only other cover, Duke Ellington's "Gypsy Without a Song." Trumpeter Tim Hagans complements the leader's ethos, evoking such progressive boppers as Booker Little and Ted Curson. The trumpeter, Hagans, charges through the harmonic mazes with the urgency of a fullback trying to gain a few more yards. Saxophonist Ben Schachter is a new voice. An educator from Philadelphia he plays with a tone like a fine carving knife — buffed and burnished and sharpened to a fine edge. Drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts slashes across the beat, dealing out rhythmic wisecracks at every turn. Bassist James Genus, like his rhythm section mates a regular participant in Herwig-led sessions, plays the straight man, helping guide the ensemble with an insistent throb on the bottom. This helps the listener as well to negotiate Herwig's intriguing originals. The pieces range from the complex structures such as "The Dream Master" to the open jam on the minor-key blues, "Land of Shadow." Another shining entry into Herwig's impressive body of work." to be continued in Conrad - Part 2

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Legrand Jazz - at 50

- Steven A. Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This piece is about another of those recordings that entered my life at a relatively early age and which helped me, to use pianist’s Barry Harris phrase – “See Out a Bit.” And, once again, I am indebted to my membership in the Columbia Record Club for bringing this recording into my living room. Little did I know at the time I first subscribed to it how membership in this record club would inadvertently further my Jazz education.

While I certainly knew [barely] about the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans by the time I received this album in 1959, all of whom appear on four tracks from one of the LP’s recording sessions, Legrand Jazz was also to become the source for a number of Jazz quests that would expanding my Jazz horizons.

Because of the music that Michel chose to orchestrate, I met Fats, Django and Bix [do any of them need last names?] for the first time as I sought out more information about the composers of The Jitterbug Waltz, Nuages, and In A Mist, respectively. In some cases, such as his up-tempo version of Bix’s In A Mist, Michel’s arrangements became so definitive in my mind that I was shocked when I later heard this tune taken at a much slower tempo by other Jazz interpreters.

There must be some irony in a story about a young man in Southern California being inspired to find out more about the early originators of Jazz as a result of listening to big band arrangements of their music as written by a young Frenchman.

But what arrangements these are - full of energy and sparkling with fresh ideas and interpretations including the use of harp, flute, tuba and French horn, instruments rarely used in big band settings at that time [with apologies to Gil Evans who was still not as yet on my “radar screen,” to continue the visual metaphors].

Besides gaining greater familiarity with some of the great Jazz composers from the earlier years of the music, Legrand Jazz also brought me a new awareness of improvisers such as Ben Webster, whose breathy tenor saxophone I first heard as introduced by a trombone choir on Nuages, Phil Woods searing alto saxophone solo on A Night in Tunisia, an arrangement that also has a trumpet “chase” comprised on Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, Ernie Royal and Joe Wilder, a Harmon-muted Miles Davis exploring the intriguing Django, a slow John Lewis blues, over a background arrangement voiced for harp, guitar, and vibes in the style of Shearing-esque blocked chords, cooking solos by vibraharpist Eddie Costa, John Coltrane and Miles [over a repeated glissando made up of closely voiced harp, flute and vibes] on Jelly Roll Morton’s Wild Man Blues, and the return of the trombone choir of Frank Rehak, Billy Byers, Jimmy Cleveland and Eddie Bert, this time to be featured on Rosetta in their very own “chase.”
Needless to say, I wore the original vinyl of Legrand Jazz to a frazzle through repeated listening and was thrilled when the compact disc version later appeared on Phillips [830-074-2].

Fortunately for you, repeated listening doesn’t “wear out” a CD as I guarantee that should you obtain a copy of this fascinating music you will be sure to play it often as it is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

Legrand’s arrangements on this album are as intriguing and inventive today as they were when they were penned 50 years ago.

Here are the original liner notes of the LP version of Legrand Jazz [CL 1250] by Nat Shapiro who is the co-editor of Hear Me Talkin' to Ya and The Jazz Makers along with Nat Hentoff to be followed by the insert notes and photos from the insert notes to the CD version by Max Harrison, author of A Jazz Retrospect.

“Among the many members of a diverse (it is international) and loyal (they have bought more than one million of his LPs) I Like Legrand Society, are those jazz musicians and arrangers who have, by chance mostly, come within earshot of Legrand recordings. From his enchanting I Love Paris (CL 555) through his more recent Columbia Album of Cole Porter (C2L 4), Legrand in Rio (CL 1139) and I Love Movies (CL 1178), this brilliant young Frenchman has, with remarkable skill, charm, invention and wit, refreshingly introduced a new kind of musicianship into that too often banal and staggeringly prolific area of popular art that we categorically label "mood music," and the French, closer to the mark, call musique légère [literally “light music,” or more accurately, as easy listening].

In many of his previous collections, notably the Porter and Rio sets, Legrand has not only made frequent and startlingly original use of the jazz musician as a soloist, but, by virtue of his dynamic ensemble scoring and happy understanding of what a rhythm section is supposed to do, has often managed to make his large orchestra swing in the best tradition of Basie, Lunceford, Ellington and (big band) Gillespie.
Michel Legrand (a multi-prize-winning graduate of the Paris Conservatoire) loves jazz with none of the tame enthusiasm, tinged with condescension of the academically oriented "serious" composer. His arrangements pointedly avoid the meaningless trickery of those highly skilled (and successful) popular arrangers who, from time to time, invest their work with "jazz feeling." Michel, still in his twenties, loves jazz with an almost boyish enthusiasm, with, if not a firsthand knowledge of its growth and environment, the kind of passionate devotion and astonishing erudition that European fans are wont to have. His feelings for several important jazz figures border on idolatry.

In the past, however, Legrand's jazz activities have been limited by both the nature of the recording assignments he has been given and the fact that in Paris, despite the liveliness of that city's jazz scene, the optimum conditions for producing a large-scale jazz figures border on idolatry.

And so, while on a visit to the United States in May and June of 1958, Michel Legrand recorded his first jazz LP. The writing was done during the first three weeks of June. The repertoire was chosen from the works of eleven important jazz composers, and the musicians, many of them familiar to Legrand only through their recordings, were selected from among the best then in New York.

Each arrangement was created with two major factors taken into consideration: 1) the styles and techniques of the participating instrumentalists and 2) the structure and mood of the original compositions. Legrand's primary concern was to provide a sympathetic framework for specific soloists. Thus, Wild Man Blues, The Jitterbug Waltz, ‘Round Midnight and Django were primarily written as vehicles for Miles Davis, with full knowledge on Legrand's part, however, of the formidable capabilities of Herbie Mann, Bill Evans, Phil Woods and the other musicians given solo space. Similarly, Nuages and Blue and Sentimental were scored with the full, breathy tone of Ben Webster's tenor saxophone in mind. Rosetta, Stompin' at the Savoy and Night in Tunisia were designed to display both the collective and individual talents of two mighty brass foursomes and on each of these tracks, ample time was permitted for the soloists to romp through a traditional "chase" pattern.

The fact that each composition in this collection was written wholly or in part by a great jazzman was the result of a deliberate decision by Legrand not only to pay tribute to his peers, but to attempt to bring the work of these giants into new focus. Jelly Roll Morton's Wild Man Blues, heretofore associated only with Louis Armstrong and Morton himself, emerges in its modern dress, played by the outstanding trumpeter of this generation with all of the savagery, bitterness and beauty of Morton's best work. The Jitterbug Waltz, one of Fats Waller's most engaging pieces, while retaining its basic charm, takes on other qualities characteristic of Waller the man and musician - notably wit and pulsation.

Django Reinhardt’s Nuages, John Lewis’ Django, and Bix Beiderbecke’s In A Mist, all with their original Debussy-like coloration and mood, are given added dimension by Legrand's instinctive rapport with the material at hand, resulting in delicate, yet powerful underlining of the solos.

In almost every sense, Legrand Jazz must be considered "experimental." Yet, with all of its daring, with all of its surprises and moments of flashing virtuosity, it stays within the bounds of jazz. The beat, the spontaneity, the indefinable spirit of jazz is there. This album is the first work of a truly important new voice in a wilderness where new voices are all too often disembodied. We're looking forward to much more from this powerful, sincere and stimulating prodigy.”

- [c] 1986 Max Harrison - CD Insert Notes

"Born in the French capital in 1932, Michel Legrand studied at the Paris Conservatoire during 1943-50 with, among others, Henri Chaland and Nadia Boulanger, one of the most eminent composition teachers of the twentieth century. Such beginnings have been largely forgotten due to the success of such things as his film scores. Legrand won Oscars for his music for "Les Parapluies de Cherbourg" (1964), "The Thomas Crown Affair" and "Les Demoiselles de Cherbourg" (both 1968), and "Summer of '42" (1971). Much earlier he had been awarded a prize by the Academie Charles Cros for his arrangements for a 1953 Catherine Sauvage LP, and in 1956 a Grand Prix du Disque for his own "I Love Paris" record. His international career took off, indeed, between these latter two awards, when he conducted for Maurice Chevalier's 1954-55 appearances in Paris and New York.

Such conspicuous successes, which have continued to the present, have obscured not only the sound academic basis of Legrand's brilliantly effective orchestral writing but also his strong attraction to jazz. There were some hints of this on recordings he had made earlier, and it was inevitable that he should in due course direct sessions in which the interest was explicit. Their result, "LeGrand Jazz," was the subject of widespread comment on its first appearance but it has been unavailable for many years. In the meantime it has become a considerable rarity, much sought after by connoisseurs of fine jazz orchestral scoring and inspired solo improvisation. Its reappearance was much overdue.

The enterprise is more ingenious, has more dimensions, than is at first apparent, and this set of performances achieves several things at once. Legrand was on a visit to the U.S.A. in May and June 1958, the writing was done in the first three weeks of June, and the sessions were recorded in New York over three days at the end of that month. This concentrated activity no doubt aided the creation of a body of music which is a single, indivisible whole: these 11 interpretations belong with each other, and nowhere else. Besides offering a personal view of jazz history up to the end of the 1950's, Legrand's recordings have themselves become an historical document, something now lying a generation back in the past which can tell us much about where jazz was then and suggest a perspective on some of what has happened since.
Not only was it necessary for the chosen themes to be of outstanding distinction, but for each, through its essential qualities, to contribute unique aspects to the whole. Every one of Legrand's scores embodies an exact understanding of the character and structure of each theme, of its potential for development in terms of orchestral of orchestral writing and improvisation, of the styles of the soloists he would employ and of how they would relate to the scored material: everything acts together. His instinctive, though also technically sophisticated, rapport with a wide variety of music could be expected from his earlier recording and other assignments. But his ability to enter into the inner worlds of these pieces - each the creation of an exceptionally strong artistic personality - indicated a considerable deepening of his perceptions. This was the more so as he presented them in such a way as to heighten their original character while showing them in new lights and providing uncommonly stimulating opportunities for his soloists. It might be added that no small part of the stimulation came from the unusual challenges with which the latter were presented. Without Legrand's initiative it is unlikely, for example, that Miles Davis would ever have been heard improvising on Fats Waller's "Jitterbug waltz" or Ben Webster on "Nuages" by Django Reinhardt.

Although these are very much Legrand's recordings, with a collective flavor entirely their own, his orchestrations, for all their dazzling impact, are not once overbearing. In tact there is something almost paradoxical in the way that he determines the atmosphere of the whole whilst at some points, as on "Blue and sentimental," almost disappearing from view. There is indeed plenty of space for the soloists and, as they were la crème de la crème of their time improvising on some of the best themes composed by major figures of their own and the previous generation, this is as it should be. Listening to their efforts again after too long an interval, one is sadly reminded of how reputations rise and fall. Thus Joe Wilder, who played so beautifully on the third session, is now largely forgotten, while Bill Evans and John Coltrane, long since recognized as crucial influences on jazz, were not mentioned on the front of the sleeve of the original issue!

The players were organized in three distinctive instrumentations, the first having the greatest mixture of colors, the second being characterized mainly by the trombone team, the third by the trumpets. This could easily have led to an excessive diversifying of the overall impression, yet, be it in the lucid ensembles of "In a mist" or amid the serenity of "Wild man blues," Legrand's writing unifies it all. The trumpet and trombone occasions give rise to lengthy chase passages of the sort that can so easily degenerate into boring exhibitionism. No hint of that will be found here, and although there is no denying the dueling aspect of, say, the trumpets' foray on "Night in Tunisia," what we get is a rapid-fire exchange of solid musical ideas. There was too much happening in these sessions for anyone to waste time on mere display.
In fact it is solid musical invention all the way, starting with "Jitterbug waltz." Waller's title is a nice contradiction in itself, for whatever jitterbugs did it was never to waltz. Legrand responds with the alternation of two strongly divergent tempos which, if you like, contradict each other. Their juxtaposition has expressive point, however, and each time the textures are different yet clearly related to what went before; indeed it is like hearing two interlocking sets of variations. The solos are at the faster speed - Davis, Herbie Mann, Phil Woods, Evans - then the theme is restated briefly, yet in a way that does not merely echo the beginning, and there is an unexpected coda in the shape of a bass solo. Waller, even in this orchestration, represents the New York "stride" school of piano-playing while "Nuages," by the great Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, stands for Europe's early contributions to jazz Here the trombones set the scene and then Webster enters, his solo the more poignant for its brevity; again the coda. this time taking the form of a piano solo could not have been predicted.
It is apt that the trumpets should dominate "Night in Tunisia," for this was composed by Dizzy Gillespie, one o the instrument's greatest masters; it was among the earliest bop themes to establish itself in the general jazz repertoire, bop being the first significant jazz style to emerge after World War II. Gillespie's peer in those days was Charlie Parker, and a Parker disciple, Gene Quill, is soon heard from, although it is Legrand's rich, many-voiced ensemble that makes the strongest impression. Quill's alto saxophone resurfaces, the ensemble briefly takes fire again to launch Frank Rehak's trombone solo, then the trumpets enter one by one, Wilder especially shining. As it continues, their improvising becomes more tightly argued, the individual statements shorter, more concentrated; then another Parkerian alto saxophonist, Woods, contends with the brass, and there is a further imaginative coda.

"Blue and sentimental" was made famous by Herschel Evans, a tenor saxophonist with Count Basie's band in the late 1930's. Here it belongs to Webster, who solos throughout with just sufficiently active trombone support. He provides exactly the lyrical calm needed after the storming trumpets of "Night in Tunisia," but that calm is never merely passive and the acutely expressive nuances of his improvising repay many hearings.

"Stompin' at the Savoy" bears two of the major swing era names, Benny Goodman and Chick Webb, and the Goodman link is signaled with a few terse flashes of clarinet, an instrument not otherwise heard on these sessions. The antiphonal ensembles are a richly detailed, many-voiced updating of the 1930's big bands' characteristic textures. Woods has plenty to say as usual, so does each of the trumpets, and there are more ensembles which, typically of Legrand, are both full-bodied and resolutely clear: we can hear every note. There is more subtle writing in "Django," for harp and piano. These instruments can readily make each other sound redundant (the piano is a harp with keys, after all), but here they precisely complement one another. Then Davis gives us his thoughts on this John Lewis theme dedicated to the composer of "Nuages."

Several of Legrand's treatments go directly against our expectations. "In a mist," for example, being fast instead of slow and "Wild man blues" doing without its striking sequence of breaks. This latter was composed by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920's and gives rise to many-hued ensembles that are more insistently contrapuntal than on the foregoing items. It was witty to use Eddie Costa's vibraphone here rather than in "Django," which has Milt Jackson and Modern Jazz Quartet associations. (The MJQ's early output was among the best of the "cool" jazz of the 1950's.) Coltrane solos, then Davis follows with orchestral support of a quality that he all too rarely was accorded; in fact it is an enhancing commentary. It was again witty to employ "Rosetta," by the great virtuoso pianist Earl Hines, a major innovator through several decades of jazz, as an outing for the trombones (with Hank Jones scampering among them during the theme statement). This is their equivalent of the trumpets' "Night in Tunisia" and all four are heard from in top form. Then Webster provides a most telling contrast, both with Jimmy Cleveland & Co. and with his own statements on other tracks. After which the trombones return with a passage that is one of Legrand's most original moments; and this time it is Mann who does the scampering.
An introduction giving no suggestion of what is to follow leads into Thelonious Monk's "'Round midnight," still the most familiar of his many compositions. This was thus renamed when words (not used here) were added, but was originally known as "Round about midnight," the title which jazz people still normally use. Whatever we call it, Davis is heard with very imaginative orchestral support - or rather he is surrounded with unpredictable gestures which are different each time. "Don't get around much anymore" is another instance of Legrand's humor, for the trombone section never quite plays Duke Ellington's well-known melody, although they hint at it constantly. This also has an earlier title, "Never no lament," under which it was recorded by the supreme Ellington band of 1940, and it, too, was renamed when words were added.
"In a mist" (also known as "Bixology") is in some ways the most remarkable single track. This exploratory piece, recorded as a piano solo by the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke in 1927, is taken at a fast tempo which, almost inexplicably, suits it to perfection. This is from the trumpet session but the whole ensemble is king. Indeed it is a piece of superb orchestral writing, full of new sounds and textures, and splendidly played, as is everything here. "In a mist" provides a fitting end to a sequence of performances which, it can now be seen, was unrepeatable. Legrand was no doubt wise in recognizing its uniqueness and in never attempting to retrace his steps."

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bam Bam Bam !!! - Part 3

[C] Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

As we begin this last phase, or “bam,” perhaps we might add three “C’s” as being characteristic of this period in the history of The Ray Brown Trio - “change,” “consistency” and “creativity”:

[1] the “change” involved a move to the Telarc label from Concord Jazz, as well as, changes in personnel with Benny Green replacing Gene Harris on piano and the later change of Gregory Hutchinson replacing Jeff Hamilton on drums;
[2] the “consistency” is in the manner in which the trio was “mic-ed” and recorded by Telarc, as well as, the constancy in having Donald Elfman [himself, a musician] as the writer of the insert notes for just about all of these Telarc recordings;
[3] the [continued] “creativity” not only in the manner in which the selected repertoire is arranged and performed, but also, in the way which Ray expands the trio to accompany guest guitarists, horn players and vocalists.

During the decade of the 1990s, the first major change was Benny Green assumption of the piano chair from Gene Harris.
Fortunately for me, I lived in San Francisco for most of this period and I was able to hear this version of The Ray Brown Trio with its Bay area, native-son pianist many times when it performed at the Old Yoshi’s Jazz club in Berkeley, CA.

With Phineas Newborn, Jr. and again with Gene Harris, Ray had worked with pianists of his own generation. Benny Green was thirty years his junior when Ray turned to him to front this version of his trio; someone who was closer in age to Jeff Hamilton.

While the principal focus of this piece is Ray Brown’s trios, both Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Gene Harris were well known Jazz personalities before they joined Ray’s group. Benny Green, on the other hand, was just turning 30-years of age so it might prove informative at this point to turn to Stanley Crouch’s insert notes to Prelude, Benny’s first album for Criss Cross [CD 1036] made in 1985 in which he offers an interesting description of the evolution of a young Jazz musician in a contemporary American society that in no way prizes the music.
Green's interest in them music was natural and began very early. Born April 4,1963 in New York City but reared in Berkeley, California, he heard Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk records through his tenor saxophonist father. 'I didn't know that it was called jazz. It was just music which I loved from when I first heard it, 'he recalls. Green was envious of his sister who started getting piano lessons and he began improvising with determination at the age of six or so when an instrument was brought into his home. His parents decided that he should learn the piano correctly if the boy was so interested in playing, so he, too, took classical piano lessons. 'My family has always been behind me all the way about playing music,' Green says. The lessons went on for about three years.

Green was very fortunate when he went into the fourth grade because he came in contact with a jazz ensemble of student musicians directed by a man named Phil Hardymon. 'It was kind of unique because there aren't too many student jazz courses throughout the country. Though I had been inspired listening to the music around the house and hearing my father play, this was a different kind of inspiration because I was hearing my peers do it. That made it seem more possible to me.' That possibility was given more thorough grounding when Green's father told his son when he was twelve that if he was going to improvise, he should get serious and start studying the records around the house, start listening to jazz radio, and go out of his way to learn what the masters, whether living or dead, were doing.

'I began studying with a teacher named Carl Andrews, who was instructing me in jazz harmony. I studied with him for about two years. 'Green would try to get in jam sessions and play jazz whenever he could. 'l would go hear pianists Bill Bell and Ed Kelly, who taught me a lot at that time. Dick Whittington was also a big help and Smith Dobson gave me some important pointers. I was starting to understand the music much better and could see how much more is needed to learn.'
At about sixteen, Green was hired by a singer named Faye Carroll and began performing with her frequently. He learned a lot while with the singer because she gave him a lot of room to play, which is how jazz musicians really develop their skills. No matter how many classes they might take or how many improvisations they might memorize or techniques they might work out, unless those materials are brought to the level of performance function, they are largely academic. It is within the sweating demands of the moment, when everything is in motion and every decision has to count, that the jazz player must be able to create musical logic expressive of the emotional qualities that define the individual sensibility. Aware of that, Green would sit in with the best musicians he could, which he did with trumpeter Eddie Henderson after meeting him in San Francisco.
'I sat in with Eddie whenever it was possible, and a few months later he called me to work with him. He was working with a tenor player named Hadley Calliman. Both of them encouraged me a lot. I learned so much being around Eddie. He played me tapes of live gigs with Herbie Hancock that were fascinating to me because of the way the music moved through so many forms, and how one performance could slide through many colors. It was very inspirational and added to what I was already trying to learn. My father had turned me onto Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Monk. I was trying to get a scope of all the eras, so I was listening to a lot of musicians, particularly Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner'
By the time Green got out of high school, he was doing trio jobs of his own, which allowed him to work at making the things he was listening to and discovering function within his own improvisational efforts. He was listening to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers when they would come to town and he was noticing that there was something different going on in the music of the musicians who were from New York. He could hear a more powerful level of swinging, a deeper groove, a more substantial grasp of rhythmic components that fuel the phrasing of jazz. He knew he had to move east.' l had that on my mind for the last few months that I was in California, regardless of what I was doing. I worked for those months with a band led byt he bassist Chuck Israels, which was about twelve pieces. Then I got to play with Joe Henderson for one night before I left. I knew if I was going to be serious about this music, I had to go where the sound I was hearing from the musicians in New York was coming from. I knew I was missing a lot being in California. There was a focus to swinging I heard coming from New York, which was more definite, more disciplined. In the Bay Area, a lot of the musicians played with a very loose feeling. So I moved to New York when I was nineteen, in 1982'

Shortly after Green got to New York, he heard Walter Bishop with Junior Cook and Bill Hardman. He approached Bishop about studying with him and became a student of the older pianist, who helped him a great deal. 'He showed me a lot about comping because I was impressed by the big sound he got out of the instrument.' Bishop was the link to Bud Powell and he was willing to show Green how he voiced his chords. But, most importantly, Bishop encouraged Green to look for his own music, not just emulate somebody else. 'Walter said that there are three stages of development: imitation, emulation, innovation. Not to say that a musician gets to all three, but those are the logical stages of development. He got me to think about the extensions of the tradition of the piano that have come since Bud Powell'.

At that time Walter Davis and John Hicks also gave Green valuable instructions. Bishop introduced Green to alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, who eventually hired the pianist. While working with Watson, he met pianist James Williams, who also encouraged him to work on his music and stick with it. Williams' encouragement was in line with the assistance and inspiration the young pianist had received from Mulgrew Miller, whom he had heard with Woody Shaw just before leaving the Bay Area. Green was strongly impressed by the sense of tradition and the personal approach within Miller's piano work. Miller also pointed him in productive directions by giving him specific and useful advice. Johnny O'Neil was also very helpful. O'Neil had just joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and was willing to share his knowledge with Green.' I had heard Donald Brown with Art when the band recorded live in San Francisco. Hearing such a fresh voice was enlightening. I'm grateful to Donald, Mulgrew and James for being at once so inspirational and supportive.’
Green free-lanced around New York for about a year, then was called to audition for Betty Carter, who had heard him on a job on Long Island. Green started working with the singer in April of 1983 and remained in her group a few weeks short of four years. 'Betty is a great musician and you learn from her in every possible way. She is a master of pacing. She understands rhythm and tempo and how they fit with harmony and melody perfectly. And most of all Betty Carter swings! Her gig is very challenging because she has very precise things she wants to achieve but she is also very spontaneous. She also helps to heighten her musicians' awareness of their role within an ensemble. That was a very good job for me and it is a very good job for any young musician. Like Art Blakey because she's always finding young musicians, giving them work, teaching them a lot of music, and encouraging them to dedicate themselves. Betty Carter is a great musician and a great person.'

In April of 1987, Green left the singer's band for the Jazz Messengers. 'Playing with Art Blakey has been, by far, the greatest experience of my life. I never have before and I'm sure I never will again come in contact with a greater musical spirit. When Art comes on the bandstand, whatever else is going on in life is forgotten and the music takes over. Art truly practices what he preaches in washing away the dust of every day life with music. And this is certainly the musician's job. As I mature, I hope to come closer to being able to achieve this on my own.'”
The first album by Ray’s new trio, BassFace [Telarc CD-83340], was recorded live at the Kuumbawa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, CA on April 1-2, 1993 and it is an absolute corker!

One simply has to hand it to Ray. How in the world do you follow the likes of Phineas Newborn, Jr. and Gene Harris, why, with Benny Green, of course. And, as is in evidence on this album, this “kid” can play [not to mention the fact that he swings his backside off].

What is also in evidence on this recording is that Ray Brown is becoming quite a polished performer: whether it is in the form of introductions to or interacting with the audience or in the thought give to how the tunes are sequenced or in the imaginative way in which the music is arranged and played.

Another aspect of Ray’s approach to each set is to intersperse a showcase for each member of the trio and on BassFace this takes the form of solo spotlights for Ray on Kenny Burrell’s title track, for Benny Green it is Taking a Chance on Love [prefaced by Ray remarking to the a heartily approving audience – “I guess by now you’ve noticed that we have a new piano player!”] and for Jeff it’s a workout on the seemingly odd choice of Irving Berlin’s Remember [“odd” only until you hear what Jeff does with it].

The Kuumbwa set begins and ends with Milestones and Ray’s original Phineas Can Be, both of which are up-tempo cookers. Ray usually includes in each performance tunes by or associated with Duke Ellington and/or Dizzy Gillespie and in this instance the latter gets the nod with the trio’s version of Tin Tin Deo. And to finish off the typical Ray Brown Set Recipe, it most always includes a blues and a ballad with CRS – CRAFT [another Brown original] sufficing for the former and In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning taking the tempo down for the set.
Donald Elfman concludes his insert notes to BassFace with these observations:

“The piano trio format has always been a showcase for an almost theatrical approach to jazz, and the Ray Brown Trio is undeniably a performing group. But these three distinct musical personalities, each with innate ability and a beautiful desire to communicate, keep the music paramount. Here, they offer poetic and always inviting readings of standards from the jazz and popular music songbooks as well as Ray’s originals. Each player shines brightly, thanks in large part to the formidable example and presence of the one and only Ray Brown.”
Next up for this engaging and entertaining trio was the 1994 CD Don’t Get Sassy [Telarc CD-83368] and contrary to the admonition contained in its title, the trio gets very sassy indeed on this marvelous CD which was to be their last together as a unit.

Along with a striking rendition of Con Alma, the Dizzy acknowledgement on this CD is a blistering version of Mario Bauza’s Tanga that offers some dazzling two-handed, octaves apart piano work by Benny Green and enough Jeff Hamilton kicks and licks to once again demonstrate that “the little, big band” is back.

The Duke Ellington tribute is in the form of a three tune medley that concludes the set which includes Rain Check [whose melody is played as a waltz before moving into an fast tempo drum feature for Jeff], In A Sentimental Mood, and Squatty Roo. Ray also contributes When You Go, a beautiful, original ballad that deserves greater recognition as it would be interesting to hear other Jazz musicians “play on it.”
Here’s Donald Elfman’s “take” on the album:

“The spontaneity of a live jazz setting often, when we're lucky, viscerally and excitingly affects the immediacy of the artist's performance. It is a give-and-take affair in which the musicians communicate with the audience which, in turn, responds in such a way as to spur the artist to even greater heights. Telarc and Ray Brown have each done their share of live recordings, working together on this trio's debut for the label (Bassface) and other special recordings with Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn.

For this new album, the artist and the label have decided to alter the nature of the live recording so as to have the best of both worlds: to involve the audience in a creative and interactive fashion and to have more control over the recorded performance. The members of the trio invited guests for each night of recording, and the audience was made up of enthusiastic friends, relatives, and selected notables. Signet Studio in Hollywood became a jazz club, but one where the audience could often hear from the control room and from the "stage" elements of the process that make a recording. The give-and-take was thus transformed into a situation where three distinct groups participated; the experience was instructive and enjoyable for all involved.

The three members of the Ray Brown Trio and the production staff of Telarc are long-standing professionals who have been involved in the art of recording countless times before. This time they added the audience into the equation in a way that retained the vividness of classic live recordings skillfully blending control and freedom.

Under no circumstances, of course, could this trio give anything less than an electric, immediate performance. Ray, Benny, and Jeff combine extraordinary rich experience in many settings with breathtaking technique and an overwhelming desire to reach an audience. They transform the standards of this and other popular music and make it impossible not to share in the moment. Ray Brown has been doing that for over fifty years, and his partners here have learned his valuable lessons well.

The crowd quickly becomes part of the experience. They take audible delight in the magic the players work on tunes by some of Ray's old bosses, by giants of jazz and popular music and from the vast store of classic song.

You can hear Ray's special affection for the late Dizzy Gillespie in two compositions with an Afro-Latin influence - Con Alma and Tanga. The brilliant Ellington medley includes a moving Arco solo by Ray on the popular In a Sentimental Mood and some striking and varied tones and colors on the lesser known Rain Check and Squatty Roo.

Of special interest from the pop songbook is a gorgeous rendition of a tune that Tony Bennett popularized, The Good Life, with the great piano playing of Benny Green leading us. Great tunes, even ones that are played frequently, sound new every time when masters like these improvise on them.

In a collection of terrific performances, the reading of Thad Jones's Don't Get Sassy is a standout. Ray understands the essence of the late trumpeter-composer-bandleader's music and his continuing importance -particularly to jazz writing. The trio works out with abandon on this powerfully funky tune from the Jones repertoire.

From Ray's own pen comes a new blues entitled, appropriately, Brown's New Blues. Ray again shows how and why he's a master in every way - soloist, accompanist, composer, leader, showman.

It is a credit to the artistry involved here that many of the audience members returned for both nights. They understood that great jazz takes on new colors every time out - even if some of the songs remain the same. And they obviously are thrilled in being part of the team that helped to create the right environment for the level of invention that the Ray Brown Trio delivers.”
Don’t Get Sassy was Jeff Hamilton’s last album with Ray before moving on to form his own trio.
Ray’s next Telarc release - Seven Steps to Heaven [CD-83364] - introduced Gregory Hutchinson as the group’s new drummer. Also making an appearance ois the fine Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius. A brief review of the musical resumes of both Hutchinson and Wakenius is contained in the following Don Elfman album insert notes along with are fine summary of the album’s highlights.
“Ray Brown is in the process of joining the pantheon of major jazz players who have also become great bandleaders. He has, like such illustrious predecessors as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Art Blakey, created groups that have forged distinctive signature sounds through the discovery of burgeoning talent with the spirit to both communicate as part of a group and develop an individual sound. What's particularly noteworthy about Ray is that for years, it seems he has been one of those soloists - first with the Modern Jazz Quartet in the late 1940s, then with the Oscar Peterson trios of the' 50s and '60s, and throughout in an unbelievable variety of ensembles and in a vast assortment of musical styles and types. After this expansive and extensive preparation, Ray Brown is, and has been, a leader.

For over ten years he has stood solidly at the helm of the Ray Brown Trio, a group which has lived and maintained the solid blues traditions of basic jazz and established environments where soloists can shine. In the piano chair, first Gene Harris (formerly of The Three Sounds) and now Benny Green have happily found the place where past and present meet, where dazzling virtuosity and an urgency to entertain join up with a solid sense of musical architecture and a need to communicate. And, as a matter of fact, drummers, Jeff Hamilton and now Gregory Hutchinson demonstrate the same mix of sensibilities. It's curious but no real surprise that Green and Hutchinson, both at first associated with the young lion new breed, have chosen to go into the roots and create new explosions in a much more traditional vein. These solid digs have taken place in the rich atmosphere - inventive and joyous - created by Ray Brown.

That brings us to the album at hand, a sparkling set of mostly old favorites and a couple of Ray's originals. All are done with the verve and spirit that have come to define any venture connected with Ray Brown, yet it's another tune still that points us to the sound picture that this set calls to mind. The Thumb is a soulful celebration of the unique talent that was its composer, Wes Montgomery. Here, and throughout the album, with the Wes-like playing of Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius, we are in the world of the classic Montgomery plus trio recordings. That Ray and his men should have feeling for Wes is perfectly fitting, since the late guitarist's recordings had the same beautiful blend of extraordinary invention and audience appeal that, no matter how broad, never compromised the scope of the invention or the depth of the feeling. And that, of course, is what we have here in this newest Ray Brown recording.
A word, first, is in order regarding Ulf Wakenius. It's no easy task to take on the role, even unspoken, of one of the greatest soloists in the history of the music. But Ulf seems undaunted by the challenge, primarily, its seems, because he does not take it as a challenge. With a steady assurance and bold confidence, he sends the music from his heart and head to his fingers and thus quietly, but most assertively, assumes the guitar chair by just playing. Working with players from Herbie Hancock and Jack DeJohnette to Niels-Henning Orstedt Pedersen ( in whose group he currently performs), he is what Jazz Journal called "a new breed of guitarist," combining "a formidable technique with a rare sense of dynamics, a multitude of influences with a precise, driving individualism." The aforementioned Montgomery tune shows right away all of the qualities that make a top-notch player incredible dexterity, a sense of what to include and when, and an exhilarating spirit that sends his playing and, in fact, the tune, soaring skyward.

The other "new" player here is drummer Gregory Hutchinson. He's sharpened his musical axe in the bands of Betty Carter, Joe Henderson (both of whom have done things original and new with the tradition) and alongside new stalwarts of rhythm Christian McBride, Geri Allen and Marc Cary, so he's made it clear that he knows the prevailing jazz currents. What's also clear is that he thinks about where this music has been, and he is now able to live those questions with Ray Brown, who has never stopped questioning. And there is the awesome, ever-growing Benny Green leading us to new worlds with his pianism.
What this album, then, is all about is a sense of "the groove." These players have certainly found it together and sound like a unit, even though this is the first time they've all recorded together. Each has his own voice and finds an individual groove without hogging the spotlight, but as a group these men find the place to lock together and stay there throughout. They make these old gems sparkle - even if you've heard In a Sentimental Mood or Stella By Starlight countless times, the mastery of this group, the power of Ray's arrangements and the vitality of the tunes help make this a new first time.

As always, Ray provides the solid rock from which the other players build. He seems both a father and a brother to these young players, offering a warm nesting place as well as an encouraging and instructive push. And what's finally amazing is that they give him lessons, too.”

As a point in passing, while at Telarc, Ray’s trio was used as the rhythm section for a number of CDs issued under the rubric “Some of My Best Friends Are ….” This phrased was completed with everything from “Piano Players” to “Sax Players” to “Vocalists,” all of which are outside the range of this piece [but well worth listening to hear more of Benny Green and the two pianists who followed him with Ray – Geoff Keezer and Larry Fuller – neither of whom is included in this feature].
Which brings us to the last of the Benny Green recordings – The Ray Brown Trio: Live at Scullers [Telarc CD-83405]. Recorded on location at the Boston club on April 17-18, 1996, Richard S. Ginell had this to say about the recording on

“Staying young by working with the young, Ray Brown and cohorts Benny Green (piano) and Gregory Hutchinson (drums) laid down a set of jazz and pop standards at a club in a Boston Double Tree Hotel. Though Brown is the leader and anchor of the date, quite obviously the pianist is going to dominate the act — and Green definitely puts on a show, wiping everyone out with the pyrotechnics of "You're My Everything," engaging in a gentle stride opening to "But Not for Me," and coming logically to a bombastic climax. Hutchinson is capable, swinging, and occasionally volatile, and Brown mostly steps back and gives these guys a firm underpinning, with a sly solo now and then ("Bye, Bye Blackbird.") There are few surprises or deviations from the mainstream here, but a good time will be had by anyone who gives this a spin.”
And the ever-present and “consistent” Donald Elfman provided the following well-scripted and astute insert notes to the recording:

“One of the beautiful ways we as humans show maturity and growth is in how we stand in a spotlight. When we're young we desperately need attention at center stage, and if it means showboating or speaking louder or other garish displays, we do those things because they're necessary for our sense of self. But as we age and become more confident with just who we are and what we've accomplished, we can, hopefully, generously and with assurance give the room and space to others without any loss of our own individuality or distinct personality. It's truly revelatory to see this process in people, because it also shows us what we ourselves can become.

Musicians who choose the performing life act out this process before the public - in person or on record - and it is a quietly breathtaking experience for an audience to watch artists grow in this way. Since Louis Armstrong first made jazz a soloist's art, the individual's statement has tended to be more dazzling and exploratory, and thus the link to that spotlight must be harder to break. So it is even more amazing to see a modern jazz musician fully grow into the music, making all his personal expression an organic part of a larger whole.

As witness by the performance recorded here-and in fact by all he does-Ray Brown has magnificently mastered this maturation process and become a jazz Everyman who still says as much or more than anyone. Of course one might make the case that as a bass player Ray had to learn from the start to make his voice a more supportive and quiet one, and there's some truth to that. But Ray Brown was always a player with his own personality, backing some of the greatest names in music but always in such a way that you always knew he was there and you wanted to hear what he had to say. So it's a nice surprise to know that this master, after years of playing and leading his own groups, has managed to put everything he does at the service of greater communication.

The Ray Brown Trio has become one of the most emotionally rewarding and entertaining working groups in all of jazz. Mr. Brown is clearly the leader - and as a mentor, as a rock-solid foundation, and as the senior member of the group he has given his young partners focus, direction, and somehow even greater freedom. But in so doing he has ably presented an unselfish personality that means that he has earned the role of leader. And what he has given has helped his sidemen towards that greater development as mature players.

From his earliest days as Betty Carter's pianist, Benny Green demonstrated dazzling, showstopping virtuosity at the keyboard. Work with the Ray Brown Trio, however, has defined and directed his technique, rounding out and synthesizing the way he holds attention. On Bye Bye Blackbird, for example, it's certain he begins with a notion of the classic Red Garland performance from the Miles Davis days, but he transforms the bravura of that recording and even the knock-'em-dead approach of some of his own work into a more rich understanding of the song and how to tell its story with other players at your side.

Gregory Hutchinson began his musical career as one of the "young lions," next to such current raves as Christian McBride, and thus he was thrust into a spotlight in which his volcanic drumming was broadly evident. He's always seemed to have a full command of his instrument but his work in this splendid trio seems to have given birth to a more complete range of expressive capability. On the gently pulsing En Estate, his subtle presence says as much about the song and its feeling as can be expressed by any instrument. And in combination with the dark but vitally immediate sounds of the Brown bass, and the sensitive lyricism of the pianist, he is able to beautifully urge the music forward.

The Ray Brown Trio performances are a finely drawn mix of incisive and thoughtful improvising and crowd-pleasing virtuosity. As a member of the classic Oscar Peterson trios, Ray seems to have learned how best to affect that blend and really make it work. The choice of tunes and Ray's arrangements here are further evidence of Ray's unselfishness - he gives himself to the richness of the standard and jazz repertoire. Mr. Brown is a leader, but these are true group performances with each member helping to give them shape.”
Mike Hennessey, a writer about Jazz whose work is often represented on Jazz Profiles has elsewhere posed the question as to “Where are the Gillespies, Parkers, Rollinses, Getzes, J.J. Johnsons and Miles Davieses of the new Jazz generation? [To which he answers] “There aren’t any.”

Hennessey goes on to explain that the insinuation of this question and answer is that it is “… intended to imply that the general level of [Jazz] artistry and creativity today is in a state of decline.”

To this charge, Hennessy offers two pertinent quotations, taken appropriately from members of today’s Jazz generation.

The first is from trumpeter Terence Blanchard: “The real problem is that people keep looking for new Dizzys, Birds and Tranes instead of judging the new generation of musicians on their own terms and evaluating their music objectively. Why should they be expected to be clones of other musicians?”

Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Blanchard’s partner at the time of this writing continues the sentiment by adding: “The general standard of playing among today’s young Jazz musicians is getting higher and higher all the time.”

Any doubt about the merit contained in these assertions by Blanchard and Harrison is further swept away by listening to the playing of current generation musicians like Benny Green and Gregory Hutchinson.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that many of the players from Jazz’s earlier generations were very limited in what they had to offer both technically and creatively. Which is another way of saying that they weren’t all giants, by any means.

From this standpoint, it is exasperating to listen to earlier generations of Jazz followers extol the work of obviously limited piano players who couldn’t play two notes with their right hand before slipping into the keyboard’s cracks over the precision, pianism and un-ending inventiveness of a Benny Green.

But for those listeners [from any generation] who are willing to open their ears and give youth its due - solely on the basis of creative merit - their patience and generosity will be amply rewarded with some great Jazz as played by some terrific young Jazz musicians who are every bit the equal of their idols and then some. To his credit, Ray Brown instinctively understood that if he wanted to continue to play with musicians of the highest ability, he had to do his part in cultivating their growth and development from among a younger crop of players.

In this regard, one can’t say enough about all that he did to help advance the cause of young Jazz musicians although his reasons for doing so weren’t entirely altruistic. For as he also said to me that night at Yoshi’s 15 years ago: “This is where and how I make my living and I want to make it as enjoyable as possible. Besides helping them mature keeps me young.”
Whatever his motivation, for we Jazz fans, there is the legacy of all the great trio Jazz music Ray left us through his loving devotion to Phineas Newborn, his urging and ultimately bringing Gene Harris out of retirement and his helping to further develop Benny Green’s career so he could carry the torch of Jazz in the current generation.