Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Metropole Orkest - Jerry van Rooyen/ Come Fly with Me

Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw - Henk Meutgeert/Riffs n Rhythms

The Dizzy Gillespie Story – Spending Time with The Writing of Max Harrison

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

Those of you who scroll the columnar or left-hand side of the blog may have come across Max Harrison’s singular comments about Tadd Dameron’s recording of Fountainbleau as reprinted from A Jazz Retrospect which is made up of a selection of his 1950s/60s reviews from the Jazz Review and Jazz Monthly magazines.

Max belongs to a select group of original thinkers that include Philip Larkin, Benny Green, Martin Williams and Stanley Crouch, to name a few, who speak their minds very directly about their likes and dislikes about Jazz, often in a style that is as much caustic and acerbic as it is literary.

The editorial staff thought we’d bring more of Max’s writing up on JazzProfiles, this time with a feature on the early recordings of Dizzy Gillespie.

© -Max Harrison/Jazz Review, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Gillespie's innovations long since passed into the life blood of jazz and it scarcely is necessary to discuss the elements of his style now. Yet although the extent of his influence cannot be questioned, his position in the music has for many years been quite different from what it was just after World War II, when bop made its first impact. For non-American listeners that impact was initially felt through the records he made, several with Charlie Parker, for obscure, long-defunct com­panies such as Guild or Musicraft in 1945-46. To have gone on listen­ing to these for some thirty years has been a considerable enrichment because, although on first acquaintance they seemed to possess a rather contrived audacity, they have retained a power to delight, even astonish. Uneven in musical quality they certainly are, but all contain great moments, and it long ago became obvious that the finest of them are among the classics of recorded jazz, their value as unlikely to diminish in the future as it did in the past.

Many factors went into the making of postwar jazz: some were the creation of individuals and some were the result of a cross-fertilisation of ideas; some had been for years developing in the jazz of the 1930s, even of the late '20s, others had come from spontaneous insights. The early Gillespie records were the first attempt at a synthesis of all the playing and thinking which had gone on, but if by 1945 the key musicians were ready, the record company supervisors were not. It took them a while to grasp that something fresh had occurred, and so on many sessions boppers were confronted with players whose ideas had been completely formed in the 19305. In view of the new music's deep roots this was not too damaging, but unquestionably these early performances, in terms of style, are less than completely integrated.

Melancholy baby, Cherokee and On the Alamo, recorded under the clarinetist Joe Marsala's name, are representative here, setting Gillespie in a tight, jivey late-swing framework. He sounds like a disci­ple of Roy Eldridge—not in the negative sense of a Johnny Letman, mechanically echoing the mannerisms, but as one who has divined further possibilities within that idiom and can see where they might lead. His continuity already is better than Eldridge's, his use of the upper register less illogical. Blue and  boogie, the first item recorded under Gillespie's own name, finds him in comparable circumstances but achieving more positive results. The underlying pulse is wrong, and his execution is less immaculate than it soon became, yet the lengthy trumpet solo, although loosely put together, includes features of melodic invention, rhythmic structure, harmonic thinking and tone-colour that were to remain characteristic. Everything else in the per­formance is made to sound redundant, and, the 1944 recordings of Parker with Tiny Grimes and Thelonious Monk's with Coleman Hawkins notwithstanding, this improvisation is the earliest fully-fledged statement that we have from a major postwar jazz musician.

Soon Gillespie recorded with a more apt personnel, including Parker and Clyde Hart, who pecks out the chord changes with discre­tion and sympathy, and was among the few pianists qualified for this sort of music in 1945. Grooving high and Dizzy atmosphere are typical of the boppers' initially rather drastic renewal of the jazz repertoire, and are fertile ground for improvisation, their themes packed with musical incident yet enigmatically honed to bare essentials. Parker, indeed, is especially fluent, revealing a side of his musical personality not much represented on studio recordings: his tone has an airy, singing luminosity reminiscent of Benny Carter, and the alto saxophone solos on both these pieces are full of grace and elegance. This delicacy again characterised his work on the 1946 Ornithology session, and, to a lesser degree, the Relaxing at Camarillo date of the following year, but it was always rare.

Gillespie has two solos in Grooving high the first of which begins strikingly but collapses with a miscalculated descending phrase which leads into a bland guitar solo by Remo Palmieri. Later the tempo halves and he plays some beautifully shaped legato phrases that would then have been quite beyond any other trumpeter; this passage later provided the basis for Tadd Dameron's fine song If you could see me now. On the faster Dizzy atmosphere he takes a daring solo which conveys the essential spirit of the bop solo style and in itself is almost enough to explain the commanding position Gillespie held in the immediate postwar years. After the solos there is an attractive unison passage for trumpet and alto saxophone which flows into a deftly-truncated restatement of the theme—a neat formal touch.

The date which produced Hot house and Salt peanuts had a still better personnel, including Al Haig at the piano. Using the chord sequences of popular songs as the basis for new compositions was common during this period (though not an innovation, as so often claimed), and Dameron's Hot house is a superior instance of the practice, supplanting the usual AABA pattern of four eight-bar phrases with one of ABCA. Gillespie's solo here is effectively poised over Haig's responsive accom­paniment, and, as on One bass hit part 1, contains definitive illustrations of the bop use of double-time. Parker digs deeper than at the previous date and shows himself well on course for his great Koko session, which took place a few months later and is dealt with on an earlier page.

Salt peanuts is a good, rather aggressive theme based on an octave-jump idea, and this arrangement, which includes some interesting harmonic touches, draws from the two-horn ensemble a fuller sound than usual. Parker seems less assured than before, yet Haig is good and Gillespie better. His entry could scarcely be more arresting, and emphasises as clearly as any moment on these recordings the absolute freshness of his imagination at this time: surely nobody else would then have dared to attempt this passage on the trumpet. The rest of his improvisation is played with equal conviction, but in another version of this piece, recorded soon after, some of the intensity is replaced with a sharper clarity of organisation.

Although Parker's work was uneven almost throughout 1945, there is no doubt of the added emotional depth he gave to these recordings, and Gillespie noticeably dominates more in his absence. Twelve months after the Salt peanuts date the trumpeter led a session on which—at last—all the participants were bop adepts. Sonny Stitt, who shared with Sonny Criss a reputation (which really belonged to John Jackson) of being the first man to emulate Parker's style, has a fair sixteen-bar solo in Oop bop sh'bam that is close to the master in tone yet far simpler in melodic and rhythmic concept. Its effect is completely obliterated, however, by Gillespie. The trumpeter did other fine things at this date, such as his solo on That's Earl, brother and his imaginative accompaniment to Alice Roberts's singing in Handfulla gimme, but on Oop bop sh'bam he plays with unrelenting intensity and perfect balance between detail and overall form that produce a masterpiece of jazz improvisation, worthy to stand beside Louis Armstrong's stop-time chorus on Potato head blues of almost exactly nineteen years before.

Despite the originality of their small combo work, to which almost equally powerful expression was given on several other titles in this series, including Confirmation, Bebop and Shaw 'nuff, the boppers were unable to establish a comparable orchestral idiom. In fact, due to its intimacy and relative complexity, bop, like New Orleans jazz, was inherently a music for small groups. The harmonic vocabulary, which scarcely was more advanced than Duke Ellington's of several years before, could easily have been written into band scores, but melodic and rhythmic subtleties derived from the leading soloists' im­provisations could not. The linear shapes of the reed and brass scoring in Gillespie's earlier big bands, like that of Billy Eckstine which preceded them, did incorporate some new ideas, but included no innovations of ensemble texture comparable to those then being carried forward by Gil Evans with Claude Thornhill's band which are discussed elsewhere in this book. The boppers were able only to adapt their style to the big band rather than the converse.

Their best arranger was Gil Fuller, who, while possessing a good sense of traditional swing band style, and having an acute awareness of any large ensemble's requirements, managed to sacrifice fewer of the new ideas, to compromise less with the old. In fact, his scores, which are less subtle of mood and texture than Ellington's but more complex than Count Basic's, seem, in their use of the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument, to descend from Sy Oliver's work for Jimmy Lunceford. Marked differences arise because of Fuller's wider melodic, harmonic and rhythmic vocabularies, yet both men used their orchestras as vehicles for dazzling ensemble display, with sudden contrasts that, however aggressive, never descended to Kentonesque melodrama. Fuller's imagination, like Oliver's, was disciplined, in a sense almost conservative, and his scores are characterised by clarity of texture, an exceptional fullness of sound whether loud or soft. And yet if there are orchestral scores which at least partially embody the spirit of the little bands of the mid-19405 they are Gerald Wilson's Grooving high, Oscar Pettiford's Something for you, both of 1945, and Fuller's 1946 Things to come, an adaptation of the small combo Bebop. Unfortunately they were all played too fast in the recording studio to produce their complete effect, and Fuller got this conception over more successfully in The scene changes, which he recorded for the obscure Discovery label three years later.

On neither Things to come nor One bass hit part 2 are Gillespie's solos at all happy (in fact he does better on Pettiford's Something for you). His inventive power is as evident as before, yet it is as if he had difficulty in shaping his material in relation to the heavier sounds and thicker textures of this setting—which is surprising in view of his prewar ex­perience in swing bands. The above comments on the orthodox nature of his orchestra's library are borne out by a conventional statement of Dameron's excellent Our delight theme or by the saxophone writing in One bass hit part 2, but on the former, and also in Ray's idea, Gillespie responds to the themes' melodic substance with masterful solos that are better aligned with their accompaniment. On Emanon, basically a rather old-fashioned powerhouse blues, there are uncommonly forceful exchanges between leader and band, some agreeably pungent ensemble dissonance, a piano solo by John Lewis, and a striking passage for unaccompanied trumpet section. There seems no escaping the fact that in such relatively backward-looking pieces as this the boppers' attempts at orchestral jazz succeeded best.

It was also in 1946 that Gillespie made his first recordings with strings. These were of Jerome Kern melodies and remained unissued for many years because of object ions made by that composer's widow to the allegedly bizarre treatment to which they were subjected. Dur­ing 1950 he made another attempt and recorded eight miscellaneous titles which suggest that Mrs. Kern may have been right, even if for the wrong reasons. Eddie South, on some delightful records made in Paris with Django Reinhardt during the late 19305, proved that the violin is a fully viable jazz instrument, but this lead has never been followed up (least of all by the crudities of Stuff Smith). En masse, certainly, strings have been a consistent failure in this music, and it has been widely accepted that they cannot be employed in jazz due to their inherent sweetness. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a large number of works by twentieth-century composers, such as Schoenberg's String Trio, Bartok's Quartets Nos. 4 and 5, Xenakis's ST/4, or Boulez's Livre, which prove that this whole family of in­struments can yield sounds as invigorating, indeed as harsh, as any found in jazz. In short what is wrong with the use of strings on jazz dates is the incompetence of the arrangers employed, and never was this more so than with Gillespie's 1950 attempts, where they were only one of a number of apparently irreconcilable factors.

For Swing Low, sweet chariot Johnny Richards wrote an absurd light-music introduction for the strings and then established the rhythm with—of all things in a Negro spiritual—Latin American percussion; a male voice choir sings not the rather sultry original melody but a commonplace new one, presumably also by Richards; Gillespie's trumpet solo has better continuity than we might expect in these circumstances, but a final touch of incongruity is provided by a return of the strings' introduction. On Alone together and These are the things I love the strings interrupt less often, and he manages a few dashing phrases in Lullaby of the leaves, but he never really sounds involved and it is impossible to understand his enthusiasm for this project, which was carried through at his instigation. On the Alamo typifies the whole enterprise, for although Gillespie blows with real power here, the trumpet passages are separated by interludes of quite offensive gen­tility from piano and strings —light music at its heaviest. If Interlude in C, a tasteless hodge-podge on a theme from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, seems to have the thinnest string writing of all it may only be due to comparison with that composer's far richer alternative being unavoidable.

The virtually complete musical failure of these 1950 items with strings may seem unimportant until we recall that already the previous year, with his conventionally-instrumentated band, Gillespie had recorded such inanities as You stole my wife, you horse-thief. A random sampling of his small combo recordings from about this period tells the same tale, and shows an almost catastrophic decline from the master­pieces of just a few years before. The champ, an excellent theme, gives rise to a fine trombone solo from J. J. Johnson, but Gillespie merely reshuffles his mannerisms, and the other players are frankly exhibitionistic. Tin tin deo or Birk's works, also from 1951, are only negative in their restraint—despite some good moments from Milt Jackson's vibraharp on the latter and Stardust, which features the trumpeter throughout, is distressingly pedestrian. The reunion session with Parker compelled Gillespie to make an altogether exceptional effort (e.g. his solos on take 2 of Relaxing with Lee or take 4 of An oscar for Treadwell), but the overall impression left by most of his records from this time is of an artist who no longer wishes to dominate, or even to control, his surroundings. And rarely did he ever again. Perhaps the reasons for this were psychological as much as artistic, but Gillespie's rarely swerving downward path from the classic small combo recor­dings he made during the immediate post war years was among the most saddening features of the jazz landscape in the 1950’s.

Jazz Review, November 1959”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Stella by Starlight" - The Maynard Ferguson Orchestra

This arrangement of Stella by Starlight is by trombonist Slide Hampton who also solos on it along with Jimmy Ford on alto saxophone and Maynard on trumpet. Featuring Frankie Dunlop's propulsive drumming, the chart ends with six notes that span five octaves.

Since "stratospheric" was a word that was often associated with Maynard trumpet work, we asked the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD to use images appropriate to this moniker while developing the following video.

They placed Maynard in the stars - where else?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Casa Loma Orchestra and the Beginnings of The Swing Era

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

Sometimes it is troubling to realize that my life has more history to it than future.

On the other hand, there are instances when it’s nice to have such a lengthy time span from which to review developments that have occurred in My World.

Or, as Mark Twain once explained: “When I was fourteen [14], I thought my father was the dumbest man in the world. When I turned twenty-one [21], I was surprised at how much he had learned over the last, seven [7] years!”

As is implied in the Twain anecdote, perhaps with the gathering of years comes some improved judgment and a tad more wisdom thanks to the additional information and knowledge we acquire along the way.

Some of these “smarts” may also have to do with learning from one’s mistakes and failures, and I have certainly had my share of these.

Thankfully, Jazz has been a part of my life since my early teens.

Over the “history” of my life, Jazz has changed from a casual, almost informal form of musical expression into an institutionalized art form.

As the writer and critic Grover Sales described it, Jazz has become America’s “Classical music.”

My initial Jazz world consisted of listening to recordings which helped me decide that I wanted to learn an instrument so that I could play this music. This led to performing the music in various settings including rehearsals, clubs and concerts.

When I was coming of age in the music, playing Jazz consisted largely or listening, observing and asking lots of questions and then applying the results of these activities to long hours of practice.

There were no curriculums, study programs or tenured teachers devoted to Jazz. If one was lucky enough to encounter it, there might be a Jazz appreciation class, but it would have been the exception rather than the rule.

Most of the Jazz performers who helped shape my first experiences with the music in the 1950s and 60s had not as yet had books written about them, let alone been the subject of technical retrospectives of their work.

In many cases, the ready source of information about these early musical heroes were the liner notes that graced their LPs as written by such luminaries as Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler and Nat Hentoff, among many, many others.

Formalized scholastic research was at a minimum as were institutes, collections and museums devoted to Jazz and its makers.

Most of the originators of the music were still performing in the 1950s and 1960s and too busy earning a living to spare the time to invest in their musical legacies.

And then, just like that, the years had gone by and it seemed as though every major Jazz figure during the first 50 or so years of the music’s existence was receiving a full length book treatment.

Most of it is good stuff, too, and contains tons of information to help Jazz fans develop a more thorough view of select Jazz artists and their music.

For example, I always assumed that The Swing Era Big Bands era was initiated by the accolades that Benny Goodman’s orchestra received from admiring young Jazz fans of the 1930s.

But after reading the following excerpt Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans Out of the Cool His Life and Music [Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2002], while preparing the recent two-part profile on Gil Evans which you can locate here and here in the blog archives, not only did I gain an insight into one of the major influences on Gil’s music, but I also derived a newfound understanding of the role the Casa Loma Orchestra played in the advent of The Swing Era Big Bands.

“The Casa Loma band, all but unknown today, was the most influ­ential white jazz-oriented band of the early 1930s, when the broad sweep of the Swing Era was still a couple of years away. The band, based in Detroit, had a dashing, dapper appearance (impeccable tails and white tie was the look), and their enthusiasm was infec­tious.

It adopted many of the musical elements of the best black dance bands led by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Bennie Moten, whose popular Kansas City-based band later gave rise to the Count Basie Orchestra. Moten's swinging, riff-based, call-and-response arrangements were a huge influence on Gene Gifford, Casa Loma's chief arranger and guitarist. Gifford emulated Moten's arrangements but wrote with his own colleagues in mind and polished the southwestern style to a sheen. Gifford's scores "required a very high level of expertise... and this the Casa Loma band possessed in abundance."9 [Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz, p. 190].

Casa Loma developed its own precise, snappy style and pro­jected an energetic unified swing sound. The band played catchy instrumental arrangements of tunes such as Wingy Manone's "San Sue Strut" and "Casa Loma Stomp"; interspersed in the up-tempo numbers were romantic ballads—such as "Smoke Rings," the band's theme song—that were ideal for close dancing.

Casa Loma's frequent radio broadcasts helped create a large, mostly white, collegiate audience for the band, particularly in east­ern cities where swing already had a foothold in ballrooms and nightspots, but the band also had a following in small towns around the country. "In 1930 the average small-town white boy who loved jazz heard only the Casa Loma band... on phonograph records, in ballrooms and on the air," wrote jazz and jazz dance historian Marshall Stearns.10 [The Story of Jazz, p. 205]

Gunther Schuller, in his comprehensive book The Swing Era, called Casa Loma "the band that set the stage for the Swing Era, the first white band consistently to feature jazz instrumentals and pursue a deliberate jazz policy."11 [p. 632]

With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD, we were able to put together the following video tribute to the Casa Loma Orchestra which features the band on Maniac’s Ball.

Since their isn’t much that any of us can do about the passage of time, itself, perhaps we can devote a little of the time that remains to today’s Jazz scholarship which is shedding more and more light on the formative years of Jazz’s development.

After all, our immortality resides in the minds of others.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ray Brown: “The Will to Swing”

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

Has anyone ever had a more illustrious career in Jazz than Raymond Matthews Brown?

By the time of his passing in 2002, it seems that Ray Brown had worked with anyone and everyone of significance during the Jazz scene of the second half of the Twentieth [20th] Century.

The list of Ray’s musical associates is as impressive as it is unending, beginning with an offer to join Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1945 on the very first day that he arrived in New York City from his native Pittsburgh!

Over the years, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles met Ray on a number of occasions.  It was almost impossible not to as he was everywhere on the Hollywood musical scene: in the studios, at clubs and in concerts.  You couldn’t miss him if you tried.

We never met anyone who enjoyed playing Jazz more than Ray Brown.

We once remarked to him that he reminded us of Ernie Banks, the outstanding shortstop who played for the Chicago Cubs baseball team from 1953-1971.  Ernie loved the game so much that he often said: “It’s a great day for a ball game, let’s play two!”

Upon hearing this analogy, Ray just smiled, giggled and nodded in agreement.

The giggle and the smile were as infectious as his enthusiasm for all things Jazz.

We were reminded of Ray recently when we read the following description of him as recounted by pianist Oscar Peterson to Gene Lees in the insert notes to Oscar double CD – The Will to Swing [Verve 047 703 2]:

“Although he would record in many formats; with a string section, with a big band, as a soloist, and as a sideman in dates featuring various of the great soloists contracted to the Granz labels; Peterson did most of his work in a trio format. But his first American recordings were in a duo with Ray Brown, who would become as close to him as a brother.

Oscar has described Ray as ‘the epitome of forethought. Sympathetic forethought,’ He said. ‘His talent is almost ethereal... He is a walking sound. Ray has a sound that he walks around with that he can't even describe . . . The fact of having the instrument under his hands makes him approach it that way. There are very few people like that. I think Dizzy's like that with a horn.’

‘And the other thing that Ray has is an innate mechanism, something within himself, that will adjust him to any situation; and consequently he will adjust that situation to what he thinks it should be. Ray has that mechanism within him, like a tuning fork, that keeps him straight.’

‘I think the reason I worked with Ray and can still work with Ray is that I challenge him. I challenged him at every level, just as he's challenged me. I tried to stay on top of Ray, and he'd say, “Go ahead. You press all you want. I'm gonna be there.” And that was a good feeling between us.’

Peterson and Brown stayed together without interruption for fourteen years — longer, as Ray put it, ‘than most cats stay with their wives.’”

The following video provides a sampling of Ray’s powerful bass work. As one of the seminal bass players in Jazz once described to Gene Lees: “My heart is in that sound.”

Joining him on this trio version of Irving Berlin’s Remember are pianist Benny Green and drummer Jeff Hamilton.  The track is from Ray’s BassFace Telarc CD [CD-83340].


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wynton Kelly: 1931-1971 - “A Pure Spirit”

“Wynton’s situation … is worth noting as a startling example of the strange irrelevance of merit to fame in Jazz.”
- Orrin Keepnews, Jazz Producer and Writer

“Nothing about his playing seems calculated .. there was just pure joy shining through his conception.”
Bill Evans, Jazz Pianist

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

Amazingly, given his background, Wynton Kelly is an often overlooked figure in modern Jazz circles.

One would think that a pianist who had worked with Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie’s 1950s big band, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery, let alone with his own trio made-up of Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, would be more widely known and respected.

But such is not the case for Kelly who is sometimes more acknowledged because he has a first name in common with the phenomenal trumpet player and leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – Wynton Marsalis – whose father, Jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, named him after Kelly.

The editorial staff thought it might be fun to spend some time developing a JazzProfiles feature about Wynton, Kelly that is, as a way of paying tribute to his memory.

In the liner notes that he wrote for Kelly at Midnight, one of the earliest album’s that Wynton made under his own name [VeeJay VJ-03], Nat Hentoff commented:

“Miles Davis was being asked one afternoon for a verbal analysis of Wynton Kelly's musical worth. Miles character­istically scoffed at using such imprecise tools as words to describe what happens in jazz; but finally he said: ‘Wynton's the light for a cigarette. He lights the fire and he keeps it going. Without him there's no smoking.’

Another judicious tribute came from Cannonball Adderley who had worked with Wynton in the Miles Davis band. ‘He's a fine soloist, who does both the subdued things and the swingers very well. Wynton is also the world's great­est accompanist for a soloist. He plays with the soloist all the time, with the chords you choose. He even anticipates your direction.’

Somewhat earlier, I'd been talking to King Curtis, a Texan now in New York and a specialist in rhythm and blues. ‘Wynton worked with me for a while, and naturally I've heard him with Dinah and with Miles. What struck me was that wherever Wynton worked, he fitted in. He's not limited to one kind of playing. With Dinah, he had the taste and supportive power of a superior accompanist. With me, he had the fire and the straightaway swinging my bands have to have. And with Miles, he can be as subtle as Miles requires.’

As is usually the case, Wynton was being discussed enthusiastically by musicians before there was much atten­tion paid him in the public prints. …”

And in another of Wynton’s VeeJay LP’s, Kelly Great [VeeJay VJ-06], Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, the great alto saxophonist and, as noted previously, Wynton’s bandmate in the Davis group, said this about Kelly:

“When Sid McCoy of VeeJay Records asked Frank Strozier (phenomenal young alto saxophonist) who did he wish to play piano on his VeeJay record date, Frank immediately said Wynton Kelly. So answered Bill Henderson and Paul Chambers. It is next to impossible to evaluate the role played by Wynton Kelly in a band, for he has a ‘take charge’ quality in a rhythm section such as a Phil Rizzuto or Eddie Stanky had on a baseball team.

Many jazz listeners are unaware that such intangible qualities as fire and spirit make the margin between greatness and ‘just good’. Leading jazz musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (Wynton's current employer), are cognizant of this fact. A short time ago Miles Davis made an album using another pianist, who at that time was a member of his band, but added Wynton for one selection, explaining, ‘Wynton Kelly is the only pianist who could make that tune get off the ground.’

What does Wynton have that is so different?”

Perhaps the difference lies in what Richard Cook and Brian Morton have described in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.  as “… his lyrical simplicity or uncomplicated touch… [or] the dynamic bounce to his chording …,” or because, as Cannonball Adderley, asserted: “Wynton combined the strength of pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans, his predecessors with Miles Davis.”

Or maybe this difference lies in the following description of Wynton’s playing by fellow pianist Bill Evans as quoted in Jack Chambers, Milestones:

“When I first him in Dizzy’s big band [in the mid-1950s], his whole thing was so joyful and exuberant, nothing about it seemed calculated. And yet with the clarity of the way he played, you knew that he had put this together in a carefully planned way – but the result was completely without calculation, there was just pure spirit shining through the conception.”

Like Bill, Brian Priestley may have also identified the essence of what made Wynton Kelly so unique as a pianist in the following description of his style in Jazz, The Rough Guide: An Essential Companion to Artists and Albums:

“An important stylist, but largely unrecognized except by fellow pianists, Kelly’s mature style was hinted at in his earliest recordings. He combined boppish lines and blues interpolations with a taut sense of timing quite unlike anyone else except his imitators. The same quality made his equally individual block chording into a particularly dynamic and driving accompanying style that was savored by the many soloists that he backed.”

More about Kelly’s special qualities as a pianist can be found in the following paraphrase from Peter Pettinger’s biography of pianist Bill Evans – How My Heart Sings:

“Evans held Kelly’s bright and sparkling style in high regard since hearing him in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, responding to Wynton’s particular blend of clarity and exuberance. This reaction was typical of Evans’s appreciation of the work of his fellow pianists; from Oscar Peterson to Cecil Taylor, he was full of admiration for their diverse talents and generous in his praise.”

As detailed in Groovin’ High,  Alyn Shipton’s life of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the unique character of Kelly’s piano style may have been the result of combining years of experience in playing in rhythm and blues bands with a fine Jazz sensibility.

Of his work with his own trio, John A. Tynan had this to say in a Down Beat review:

“It is one of the most cohesive and inventive rhythmic groups in small-band Jazz today.”

Musicians commenting about Wynton’s work on their recordings state: “The presence of Kelly may account for the difference …,” “… the album would not have been excellent without Wynton Kelly’s sterling support,” and “… he is disarmingly pleasant to work with, the very model of a mainstream pianist.”

The Jazz writer and critic, Barbara J. Gardiner closed her insert notes to the 1961 VeeJay 2-CD compilation Wynton Kelly! [VeeJazz-011] with the declaration that “You would expect Wynton Kelly to be comprehensive as well as creative. Hasn’t he always been?”

Although she was referring to the material on these CDs “… tried and proven, mixed in with a bit of the fresh …,” this could also serve as an apt way of describing Wynton’s approach to Jazz piano: wide-ranging and inventive.

One is never far away from the Jazz tradition when listening to Wynton Kelly, but what he plays is himself; he has incorporated his influences into his own musical “personality” and recognizably so. Four [4] bars and you know its him.

Wynton is not a pianist who overwhelms the listener with startling technique or originality of conception.

But what he does offer is playing that is full of joy, funk and a feeling for time that fills the heart with happiness, sets the feet tapping and get the fingers popping the beat.

Wynton Kelly is the pianistic personification of swing, or if you prefer: “smokin’,” “cookin’” or “boppin’.” 

When Wynton plays Jazz piano, you feel it.

Nothing cerebral here in any deep or complicated sense, just – “Clap hands, here comes, Wynton.”

Hear it for yourself in the following tribute to Wynton that features him along with Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones. The tune is Rudolph Stevenson’s On Stage” from Kelly at Midnight [VeeJay-03] and it displays vintage performances by all three members of one of the greatest rhythm sections in modern Jazz history.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bill Evans – The Sesjun Radio Shows

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In the early 1960s, not too long after it first opened, pianist Bill Evans was a frequent visit to drummer Shelly Manne’s - The Manne Hole.

After the tragic death of his close musical colleague, bassist Scott LaFaro, in July, 1961, Bill couldn’t bring himself to sit at the piano.

He just stopped playing, some say, for almost a year.

Shelly, who was one of the most sensitive guys on the planet and who was also a great fan of Bill’s music, thought perhaps a change of venue would be good for Bill and brought him out to “The Coast,” as it was then referred to by the cognoscenti, for a solo piano stint at his Hollywood, CA club.

At the time, Bill Evans was not as well-known to the wider Jazz public as he would become later in his career.  As a result, the audience for his last set at Shelly’s was often a musicians-only affair.

Due to reasons of proximity, preference and pleasure, Shelly’s was my hangout as a young, aspiring Jazz musician.

And thanks to Shelly’s generosity in allowing us in the back door sans cover charge, it was a place that I and my cohorts could visit often to fill-up on Coca Cola and plenty of great Jazz.

Bill occasionally joined us at our table, shared information about how he constructed or “voiced” chords, which was very unique at the time, and graciously answered what seems in retrospect to have been an unending stream of questions about “what he heard in the music.”

He was kind and considerate to me and my mates and always very open to requests to play certain tunes.

For some reason, I had become very taken with Tadd Dameron’s, If You Could See Me Now. When I asked him if he would play it, I remembered that he got a very distant look on his face and said: “ I don’t play it much anymore, but if you’ll stick around, I’ll close the last set with it.”

A few years later, Bill was again appearing at Shelly’s, this time with a trio which included Chuck Israels on bass and Larry Bunker on drums, who was my mentor and friend.

When he played, Bill always hunched over the piano, kept his head down and was seemingly oblivious to anyone else in the room.

I had quietly entered the club and was seated so that I could observe Larry’s drumming [no instructional videos in those days, only personal observation].

After the tune they were playing when I walked in had concluded, Bill started in on If You Could See Me Now.

While later talking with Larry as he was putting his cymbals away for the evening, I mentioned the tune and Larry said that in the two years he had been with Bill, this was the first time that Bill had played If You Could See Me Now while he had been with the trio!

Imagine my pleasure then when my copy of Bill’s “The Sesjun Radio Shows” double CD arrived and I found If You Could See Me Now as the opening track on the second disc.

Bill’s treatment of what has since become a Jazz standard is magnificent as are all the tracks on this 2 CD set which will become available for purchase on June 28, 2011.

When “Bill Evans [who] is considered by many to be the most influential Jazz pianist of the last 50 years,” has more of his music released, it is always welcomed news.

According to Michael Bloom Media Relations: “These sessions, recorded live for the highly acclaimed Dutch Radio Show “Tros Sesjun” between 1973 and 1979, showcase Evans’ talent in a small group setting as he appears with such eminent musicians as Eddie Gomez [bassist], Eliot Zigmund [drummer], Marc Johnson [bassist], Joe LaBarbera [drummer] and Toots Thielemans [harmonica player]”

There are nineteen [19] tracks on the two CDs. All of the music is played to Bill’s exacting standards and the recording quality throughout is warm sounding and very distinct.

With high profile artists such as Bill, there is sometimes a tendency for anything and everything which is discovered posthumously by their estates to be issued irrespective of its artistic merit or sound quality.

This is definitely not the case with Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows [Out of the Blue. PRCD 2011005].

I think that Bill would have been very proud to have these performances released as commercial recordings.

The folks at T2 Entertainment, the original producers of these shows, Dick de Winter and Cees Schrama [who also selected and sequenced the music], and Arjan de Rues for his superb editing and mastering deserve a great deal of credit for making this music available.

Special mention should also be made of the work of Machgiel Bakker and Job De Hass of Beeld & Geluid. Based in The Netherlands, Beeld and Geluid is a public facility with sound and vision links to media archives.

In the 1970s, Bill began to feature his original compositions more often during his concerts and club dates and this is no less the case on these recordings on which he performs Laurie, The Two Lonely People, Sugar Plum, Time Remembered and two sterling renditions of his difficult TTT (Twelve Tone Tune and Twelve Tone Tune Two).”

With regard to the latter, the conventional scale is made up of eight tones, but 20th century composer Arnold Schoenberg created music in which no pitch class (or note) is repeated until all other chromatic pitches have been used. Any group of twelve pitches arranged this way is sometimes called a “row.”

It is difficult to compose music using a twelve tone row, let alone to improvise on it without it sounding like some sort of an exercise and a tortuous one at that.

Bill’s artistry is such that he turns the twelve tone row into a musical chase or game of tag between himself and bassist Eddie Gomez that’s easy and fun to follow.

You can always tell when Bill is in the presence of a powerful ballad  – one whose melody tugs at his soul. He doesn’t improvise much off of these, preferring to play around it.

This especially the case with tunes like The Days of Wine and Roses, Some Other Time and If You Could See Me Now.

He may add a note here and there; change the tempo; play the theme in chords; add some transitional riffs to elongate the melody. But he remains focused on the melody itself.

Ballads that Bill has composed - Time Remembered, The Two Lonely People and Sugar Plum - find him more adventurous; more willing to take chances; more inclined to explore the inner possibilities of a tune’s structure.

A melodic ballad in the hands of Bill Evans becomes a pianistic treasure to behold. It’s as though these melodies, the piano and Bill Evans were created to be together. 

One suspects that the Jazz “gods” may have created the symbiotic relationship in Bill’s balladic pianism for their own pleasure.

Mercifully, the production team of Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows has opted to share more of Bill’s introspective and impressionistic treatment of beautiful melodies with the rest of us mere mortals.

Another characteristic of Bill’s Jazz artistry is the strong interplay between the piano and the string bass and these interchanges continue to be on display on Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows with the work of bassist Eddie Gomez on Disc 1 and bassist Marc Johnson on Disc 2.

Both Eddie and Marc play bass with a high level of virtuosity, one that will literally find you holding your breath at times. Their command of the string bass is so great that they are able to take an instrument that is often overlooked and make it compelling to listen to.

Followers of Bill’s trio music have come to expect his concerts to include versions of My Romance and Miles Davis’ Nardis that primarily serve as vehicles for him to showcase the talents of all the members of the trio with special opportunities for the drummer to “stretch out” [play extended solos].

Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows has treatments of both of these signature tunes and each contains generous amounts of Joe LaBabera’s tasteful and musical drumming.

Recorded on three, separate occasions in 1973, 1975 and 1979, the varied program, sparkling sound quality and masterly musicianship of Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows would make an excellent introduction to Bill’s music, if it is new to you, and put a smile on the faces of those who are already familiar with it.  More Bill Evans is like an extra helping of dessert.

With the assistance of the ace graphics team of CerraJazz LTD, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles was able to put together the following video tribute to Bill Evans: The Sesjun Radio Shows which features Bill’s performance of – what else? – Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Chet Baker: The Comeback

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

I always thought that for Chet Baker, playing a beautiful, melodic solo was as easy as putting the trumpet to his lips.

It seems, however, that there was a time during his career when placing the trumpet against his lips was more excruciating than musically rewarding.

The cause of this agonizing pain was the dark side of drug addiction which caught up to Chet one night in 1968 when a group of San Francisco San Francisco junkies “… relieved him of his dope money and his teeth and made him decide he’d have to give up heroin or die.”

Doug Ramsey continues the story in his insert notes to the 1974 CD, She Was Too Good To Me [CBS Associated ZK 40804; LP originally by Creed Taylor for CTI Records].

Recorded in 1974, this was “… Chet’s first major recording since the night in San Francisco in ’68 …” when Chet encountered every brass player’s nightmare – losing one’s teeth!

Or as Chet explains to Doug: “Believe me, when a trumpet player has had his teeth pulled, it is a comeback.”

“Baker says that with the lack of self-pity that is as characteristic as the absence of hyperbole when he evaluates his artistry, past and present.

Of those early triumphs in the polls, he says, ‘I never really believed that I deserved it. As far as my playing now, I believe I have progressed conceptually, which is the important thing. At the time I won the polls, my style was very lyrical, a style the average person could listen to and understand without being overwhelmed with technique. I can still play that way, very cool, few notes, lots of empty spaces. I can also play very fly, very hard. I believe I play ten times better now than I did then. And I don't want to lose people, I want them to understand what I play on my horn.’

In this album, you’ll hear Chet play both ways, cool and “very fly." The lyricism is intact. The tone, if anything, is deeper and fuller. The celebrated similarity between Baker's instrumental and vocal phrasing is vividly displayed on those two gorgeous ballads of regret, "She Was Too Good To Me" and "What’ll I Do." The sense of loss expressed by the lyrics has never been more poignantly interpreted. And you’ll surely be able to "understand what I play on my horn" in the 16 bars of trumpet between the vocal sections of "She Was Too Good To Me." It's a classic melodic statement, in a league with Bobby Hackett's 1939 "Embraceable You," Jack Sheldon's bridge on "Then I’ll Be Tired Of You" with the Hi-Los, and Chet’s own "My Funny Valentine."

On the faster pieces, the springiness of phrasing; the floating, easy swing; the intelligent lines; the high personal sound with a touch of added brilliance; all of these elements testify to the continued vitality of an important trumpet artist. …”

With the assistance of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has developed the following videos to demonstrate both “the fly” and “the lyrical” aspects of Chet’s playing on She Was Too Good To Me.

The first video features Chet on Hank Mobley’s Funk in Deep Freeze while the second spotlights him on Rodgers and Hart’s She Was Too Good To Me. Assisting Chet on the first performance are Hubert Laws on flute, Bob James on electric piano, Ron Carter on bass and drummer Steve Gadd.  Don Sebesky arranged the strings and conducted the orchestra for the music on the second video.

Artistic perfection is something that every musician strives for.

With Chettie, even with broken teeth, artistic accomplishment seemed to occur as though he was in a continual state of grace and the Jazz Gods had shined a ray through him.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

George Shearing, 1919-2011: A Tribute

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For a variety of reasons, February 14th is a very significant date around our place. 

Unfortunately, this year added another basis to its significance as pianist George Shearing died on February 14, 2011.

George has been the subject of two previous features on JazzProfiles which you can locate by going here and here.

Sir George Shearing [he was knighted in 2007] had been one of our Jazz heroes for many years, again, for a variety of reasons including the unusual [for the times and since then, too] instrumentation of his quintet with its front-line of vibraphone and guitar, the block chording of what came to be known as “The Shearing Sound” [explained both in the previous features and in the following obituary], his wonderful wit, often applied at his own expense, his engaging way with an audience [he actually talked to them, although he could never see them as he was blind at birth], his intricate and intriguing compositions including Lullaby of Birdland, Conception and From Rags to Richards [a play on words involving the surname of his long-time vibist, Emil Richards], his marvelous albums with vocalists including Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme and John Pizzarelli, his longevity and his humanity.

The phrase “what a guy” becomes an understatement when applied to Sir George Shearing.

In the 1940s and 1950s, his early years in Jazz, George was often criticized for limiting the length of the solos played by his group.

At a time when many soloists were “stretching out,” sometimes to the point of playing lengthy and utterly boring solos, George would state the theme, give each member of the group one chorus, himself two, re-state the theme and end the tune.

In some cases, if the tune was taken at a very fast clip [tempo], the recorded track would be over in two or three minutes.

In talking with musicians who have worked in George’s quintets over the years, to a person, each of them stated that George’s shortened approach to soloing was a challenge that they welcomed.

Creating a good solo in a short period of time is not the easiest thing to, but when it is done well, it becomes a musical gem.

You can hear an example of George’s attenuated style of playing Jazz in the soundtrack to the following video tribute to George.  The tune is pianist Ray Bryant’s “Pawn Ticket.” Sadly, Ray, also died this year on June 2nd.

I think that the musicians on this recording comprise one of the very best quintet that George ever put together: Jean “Toots” Thielemans on guitar, Emil Richards on vibes, Al McKibbon on bass and drummer Percy Brice.

The video is followed by George’s obituary as it appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald March 22, 2011. It is a modification of one that appeared earlier in The Los Angeles Times.

[c] –Steven A. Cerra, Introduction, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“George Shearing started playing piano at the age of five but didn't receive formal training until his teenage years at a school for the blind. Shearing, the elegant pianist who expanded the boundaries of jazz by adding an orchestral sensibility and a mellow aesthetic to the music, has died aged 91.

A prolific songwriter, Shearing once introduced Lullaby of Birdland - written in 1952 in celebration of the fabled New York nightspot and its radio show - by saying: ''I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two-hundred-and-ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one.''

Shearing, who was born blind, first came to the US from England in 1946. His first job was intermission pianist at a New York club during a Sarah Vaughan engagement. He took a similar post at another club during an Ella Fitzgerald engagement and sometimes filled in for her pianist, Hank Jones.

He continued as a struggling, unknown until early 1949, when he hit on a formula that would establish his jazz identity.

Leonard Feather - the jazz critic, producer and composer who discovered Shearing in 1937 - suggested the pianist add a guitarist and a vibraphonist to the standard rhythm section to make up a quintet. The personnel in that first group were diverse, both in race and gender, and included John Levy on bass, Denzil Best on drums, Marjorie Hyams on vibraphone and Chuck Wayne on guitar.

The group went into the recording studio and came out with September in the Rain, which sold nearly 1 million records. Their first New York engagement came in April 1949 at the Cafe Society Downtown. They then went on a national tour and by the end of the year, Shearing's group was voted the No.1 combo in a reader poll by jazz magazine Down Beat.

With this group, Shearing developed what came to be known as ''the Shearing Sound'', which involved not only the make-up of the band - vibes and guitar generally were not both found in quintets - but also the style in which he played the piano. He used the ''block chords'' technique to create a big, lush, orchestral sound.

In his book The Jazz Years: Earwitness to an Era, Feather wrote that Shearing ''developed a new and unprecedented blend for his instrumentation''.

In that technique, a New York Times writer noted some years ago, ''both hands play melodies in parallel octaves with a shifting cloud of chords in between''.

Shearing worked primarily with his quintet for much of the next three decades. The personnel shifted but over the years included some of the finest names in jazz, including Cal Tjader and Gary Burton on vibes and Joe Pass and Toots Thielemans on guitar.

From the early 1950s on, Shearing had steady work in recording studios, first with MGM, where he was under contract from 1950 to 1955, and then with Capitol Records for 14 years. With Capitol, he recorded albums with some of the best singers of the day, including Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and Nat King Cole, and achieved substantial chart success in the late 1950s and early '60s.

Though the commercially successful quintet was his bread and butter, Shearing began to feel limited by it and grew tired of life on the road. At one point, he told New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett that his quintet played 56 concerts in 63 days.
''George drives himself harder than you notice,'' bassist Al McKibbon once told Feather. ''One night in Oklahoma City, I saw him literally fall asleep in the middle of a chorus of Tenderly. He woke up with a start and carried right on.''

Shearing disbanded the group in 1978. For most of the rest of his career, he appeared mainly in solo, duo or trio settings.

His work in duos and recording contracts with Concord Records and then Telarc in the 1980s seemed to revitalise him. He recorded five albums with singer Mel Torme that were successful both critically and commercially.

His autobiography, Lullaby of Birdland, was published in 2004.

Born August 13, 1919, in the Battersea district of London to working-class parents, Shearing was one of nine children. He started playing piano and accordion at the age of five but didn't receive any formal musical education until he spent four of his teenage years at Linden Lodge, a school for the blind.

It was there that he learnt Bach, Liszt and music theory. It was also during this time that he became interested in jazz, listening to recordings by American pianists Meade Lux Lewis, Earl Hines, Art Tatum and Fats Waller.

At Linden Lodge, Shearing showed enough potential to earn a number of scholarship offers from universities. But after graduating, he went to work in a local pub where he earned about $5 a week and tips for his playing. Within a year, he joined Claude Bampton's big band, a 15-piece unit made up of blind musicians.

Feather discovered Shearing playing as a swing accordionist in a London jam session. He quickly arranged for Shearing to record for English Decca and, although that recording date was not Shearing's first, it was the one that set his career in motion.

With Feather's help, Shearing got a regular radio program on the BBC. He had a Dixieland band and was also his country's leading boogie-woogie pianist. He was soon being called Britain's answer to the great American pianist Teddy Wilson and for seven consecutive years was chosen most popular jazz pianist by Melody Maker magazine.

While playing in an air-raid shelter, Shearing met his first wife, Beatrice Bayes. They married in 1941 and had one daughter before divorcing in the early 1970s. He later married Eleanor Geffert, who survives him, as does his daughter.

Over the years, he played for three US presidents - Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - as well as the Queen. He was knighted in 2007.

An anecdote he related to Feather said much of his sharp wit: ''When we were preparing to be received [by the Queen], I was told the directive is: 'Do not extend your hand until the Queen extends hers.' I said, 'Well, either somebody's going to have to cue me or she'll have to wear a bell.' But somebody did cue me.'”