Friday, July 29, 2011

Eddie Harris – Eddie Who?

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

Don’t know much about multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer, Eddie Harris?

Just click on the image below and he’ll tell you all about himself.

Eddie makes me smile; he has fun with the music. Can you tell?

According to the following excerpt by Gene Lees, it seems like he always has.

© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The late Bud Freeman, a native of Chi­cago and one of that city's most ardent loyalists, argued that jazz was invented not in New Orleans but in Chicago. It's debat­able, of course, but if you accept that jazz is an art of stellar improvising soloists, then Bud had a point, because it was in Chicago that Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone and Bix Beiderbecke and Benny Goodman (only Goodman a native) matured and honed their craft, and set the direction of the music.

I lived in Chicago from 1959 to 1962, the period when I was editor of Down Beat, and the city was (as it is now) an extraordinarily fertile garden of jazz, madly florid with talents both native and imported. Eddie Harris was one of the natives. He was unknown outside the city at that time. I have delightful memories of cruising from one club to another with Eddie to visit our friends. I thought he was an outstanding musician, an original com­poser, and a fine player on several instru­ments. He was fascinated by all sorts of sonorities, experimenting with trombone fitted with reed mouthpieces, tenor saxo­phone fitted with trombone mouthpiece, and more. He'd show me these tricks at his house, and we'd laugh. Tenor, though, was his main instrument. He made an album for the small Chicago label called Veejay. One of the tunes he recorded was the theme from the film Exodus, which became a huge hit, and launched Eddie as a national and later international name.

Eddie moved to Los Angeles and recorded with all manner of the best jazz musicians. In 1969 he teamed up with pianist and singer Les McCann. They gave a performance at the Montreux Jazz Fes­tival, the recording of which cranked both their careers a notch higher.

Eddie once told me that he had asked the great tenor saxophonist Lester Young a question about embouchure. Pres told him, "I can only tell you about my mouth­piece in my mouth. I can't tell you about your mouthpiece in your mouth.”

Eddie used to improvise satires on the blues as we'd ride around Chicago in his car, laughter trailing in the night.” [John Reeves and Gene Lees, Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, p. 128]

More of Eddie’s fun music is on tap in the following video. The tune is Ambidextrous. Stay with this one as Eddie really turns it loose after Ralphe Armstrong’s fine bass solo.

And here is a video tribute to vocalist Madeline Eastman in tandem with the art work of the great Modigliani that features her performance of Eddie’s most famous composition – Freedom Jazz Dance.

Are we having fun, yet?

I certainly hope so as Eddie and others who perform his music obviously did. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ed Thigpen – The Drummer as Colorist and Percussionist

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

“ … everything he played had this beautiful sound, profound swing and great sense of orchestration. It was amazing to watch his hands—he was so powerful and yet, at the same time, he was able to coax all these subtle colors from the set.”
- Mark Dresser, JazzTimes, March 2011

In 1959 Ed joined the Oscar Peterson Trio.
The Trio still considered by many musicians and the public to be the greatest piano-bass-drums trio in the history of Jazz.  Ed recorded more than 50 albums with Peterson before he left the group in 1965 and toured with Ella Fitzgerald.
- Drummer World Biography

In terms of making it big in the Jazz world, nobody ever had it more difficult than Ed Thigpen.

The gig that brought him fame also brought him infamy – at least, initially.

Perhaps, “infamy” is too strong a word for the reaction of many in the Jazz world when pianist Oscar Peterson decided to forsake the guitar in 1959 and add a drummer to the trio he had formed with bassist Ray Brown almost a decade earlier.

Jazz purists thought that guitarists Barney Kessel and later Herb Ellis had kept the overall sound of the trio light and melodic while doing nothing to diminish the intensity of its swing.

Aside from taking away another melody voice, they argued that drums would harden the sound of Peterson’s trio and make its rhythm more pronounced and aggressive.

Jazz drummers push; they drive the time or the meter of the music. It’s what they do.

Some musicians contend that drummers are always moving you in directions you don’t want to take so you eventually wind up competing with them and becoming less musical as a result.

But nobody ever pushed the late Oscar Peterson [“OP”] anywhere, let alone a drummer. He had a presence at the piano that was virtually overpowering.  If you were lucky, Oscar would let you come along for the ride.

And so it was in 1959 when OP welcomed ET into his trio.

This act of grace on Peterson’s part and the fact that Ed always wanted [?!] to perform with Oscar and Ray’s trio made it difficult for any of us fellow drummers to have any sympathy for him when the gig came his way.

Ed explains it this way.

"I always wanted to be with Oscar's group, even when Herb was with that band. I told Ray in Japan [while I was stationed there during the Korean War and they were in Tokyo performing with the Jazz at The Philharmonic tour], 'The only thing wrong with this group is you need a drummer.' Ray said, 'Well, y'never know, kid.' I said, 'I need to play with this group. I love this group.' And they went out and proceeded to swing so hard I thought, 'Well, maybe I'll miss it, but I still would like to play with the group.' So it was four years later that I joined them. Yeah, it was a lot of pressure though. It was. Because whatever insecurities I had... I was in awe of those guys, I loved them, I really loved them, and when it's like that, you give everything you have. They were so heavy, so fantastic and, obviously, so acclaimed, that I was in awe of both of them. Ray was very kind. All the time. He just took me under his wing and saved me." [Gene Lees, Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, p. 143]

Oscar never considered Ed as only a drummer. To mix metaphors, OP thought of him as someone who broadened the canvas on which the music took place and added colors and textures to it with the strokes of a percussionist.

Additionally, as he describes in the following excerpt from Gene Lees insert notes to the Verve double CD anthology, The Will to Swing [847 203-2], he viewed the challenge of working with a drummer from an entirely different perspective.

"The trio with Ed and Ray" Oscar said, "that was six years of unbelievable music. Again you had a tightness and a cohesiveness between members of the trio. I seldom had to call tunes ... Ed Thigpen was a very reflective yet complete percussionist. He wasn't really a drummer, he was a percussionist. He had that feeling . . . that it wasn't just drums he was sitting at. It's the way he thinks. He sees his drums as a complete, not instrument, but orchestra.

"Ed Thigpen has a touch on the drums that you seldom hear. Jo Jones had that same thing. Ed was not the gorilla Bobby Durham was. Ed came in another door altogether. And if you mixed that with Ray Brown! At that time, there was a question of, Oscar can't pull all that off, it's all right to do that with the guitar, because it's light, it's up here. You can skim over the keys and all that.' When we brought in Ed, it was a chance to prove that I play the way I play, that's it.…"

There’s more about Ed Thigpen’s character and ability in this vignette by pianist Dr. Billy Taylor. Ed was a member of Billy’s trio before joining Oscar:

"’In 1958," said Taylor,’ … ‘I was musical director of a show called The Subject Is Jazz on National Public Television. At the end of the thirteen weeks, I was asked by the producers to make a prediction: where is jazz going?’ I said, 'There's a young man who's just recorded a piece written by a friend of mine. I'm not good at predicting, but I believe this is one of the directions that jazz is going. George Russell has just written this piece called Billy the Kid and the soloist is Bill Evans.' I said, 'We don't have sufficient time to rehearse a work of this difficulty, so why don't we bring in the guys who did the record?' So we brought the band in and for some reason the drummer on the record date couldn't make the TV date. So Ed Thigpen, who was my drummer, read the son of a bitch at sight! I mean, sight read the son of a bitch! And played the hell out of it. He's one of the damnedest musicians on earth.’" [As quoted by Gene Lees in Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, p. 142]

Ed primarily used a scaled down drum kit. With only a 5” inch deep snare drum, an 8” x 12” mounted tom tom, a 14” x 14” floor tom tom and a bass drum that was 20” in diameter, his emphasis was on quickness and lightness.

He once said at a drum clinic that I attended words to the effect that although trying to move Oscar was like trying to move a freight train, he wasn’t kicking any big band, so he wanted his drums to have a bright quality about them.

He also used small cymbals. Ed was one of the few drummers that I ever saw play on 13” hi-hat cymbals [most use 14” and some use 15”]. Both his ride and his crash cymbals had a dishy and swishy quality to them that cut through Oscar’s full bodied piano sound.

At the clinic, Ed commented further that given some of the fast tempos that Oscar set, the last thing a drummer needed were big, tubby sounding drums that were unresponsive and had to be “played down into.”

As you will see in the video feature that concludes this piece, Ed added more drums to his kit over the years, but I would suspect that this was because he could thanks to all of the free samples from drum manufacturers.

Ed prided himself on his brush work. Many drummers shun these because they are much harder to play than drum sticks. Not Ed: to him, if you could play it with sticks, you could play it with brushes.

Given how high Ed liked to hold his left-hand in relation to the snare drum – almost at a 45 degree angle to the snare drum - it was remarkable how fast he could play with brushes. I have no idea how he developed speed with brushes from this starting point.

But then, it seems, that Ed never sought the easiest way.

Few other drummers could have achieved what he did. Six years and 50 recordings as a member of Oscar Peterson’s trio is a creative accomplishment to rival any in Jazz.

While others demurred and declined, Ed sought out Oscar. It was his destiny and he handled it beautifully.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Teddy Edwards – Jazz Tenor Saxophonist of Importance

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

“Right from the beginning, Edwards’s recordings have been of consistently high quality, testimony to his likeable and no-nonsense approach. … Though he has had his ups and downs, Edwards’s relaxed, imperturbable manner has sustained him well; ‘steady with Teddy’ has been the watchword.”
- Richard Cook & Brain Morton, The Penguin Guide To Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

Sometimes I think that the “Los” in LOS ANGELES is an abbreviation for “Land of Obscure Saxophonists.”

How else to explain the relative lack of attention garnered by Harold Land, Sonny Criss, Curtis Amy, Jimmy Woods, Jack Montrose, and a number of other excellent saxophonists whose careers took place primarily in the City of Angels?

Teddy Edwards is another name that also seems to belong to this list of unheralded, Los Angeles-based saxophonists.

Thankfully, Les Koenig at Contemporary Records and Richard Bock at Pacific Jazz provided Teddy with a number of recording opportunities which helped document his excellence as a tenor saxophonist and composer.

In Teddy’s case, the initial reasons for his lack of public recognition may lie in the following explanation by Ted Gioia who writes:

“Although many West Coast musicians of Edwards's generation were beset by personal tragedy, few suffered more from pure bad luck. A series of recurring medical afflictions—gall bladder trouble as well as several oral surgeries necessitated by problems with his teeth—haunted Edwards throughout the 1950s, often sidelining him for months on end. When he was able to play, Edwards distinguished himself by being in the right place at almost the right time. At the start of the 1950s Edwards stood out as the most prominent member of the Lighthouse All-Stars, and his compo­sition "Sunset Eyes" was the band's most requested number. Yet right before the All-Stars' rise to fame through a series of widely heard record­ings, Edwards was dismissed by leader Howard Rumsey when a group of ex-Kenton players suddenly became available for active duty. Rumsey's decision was marked with eventual success, but Edwards was the unfortu­nate casualty of the affair. Nor was this all. In 1954, Edwards turned down an opportunity to go on the road with the Max Roach/Clifford Brown band because he had recently married and felt that the time was not right for an extended road engagement. The Roach/Brown band went on to be- come the most celebrated bop quintet of its day. Edwards never got an­other chance at such a high-profile gig. The tenorist's life during the hey­day of West Coast jazz is an extended account of just such missed opportunities and misfortunes.” [West Cost Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960, pp. 130-131].

Les Koenig, owner-operator of Contemporary Records, offered this overview in the insert notes to his Together Again!!!!  Contemporary album [Contemporary 7588; OJCCD-424-2] which features Teddy with his long-time musical associate and friend, trumpeter Howard McGhee:

“Edwards, …, continued to work in California, where musicians have long considered him to be one of the top tenor men in the country. However, it seems next to im­possible for a jazzman to make a national reputation on the West Coast. If Horace Greeley were passing out advice to jazzmen today, he'd have to say, "Go East, young man!" For personal reasons Teddy preferred to work closer to his home and family; and so, it is all the more remarkable that despite the geographical handicap Teddy is regarded as one of the very best tenor men by critics, musicians, and jazz fans at home and abroad. In 1960 and '61 he was active in the recording studios, and his Teddy's Ready! (Contemporary M3583, stereo S7583) received exceptional reviews. Stanley Robertson, who has followed Teddy's career for many years, wrote in the Los Angeles Sentinel, ‘Teddy Edwards must be considered one of the major voices in jazz.’

Bob Gordon had this to say about Teddy and Howard’s work on Together Again!!!!:

“Together Again remains a very satisfying album - it wears like a comfortable pair of sneakers. Howard McGhee and Teddy Edwards were at the cutting-edge of jazz when they first got together in the late forties. By 1961 they were considered in the mainstream rather than the avant-garde, but both had continued to progress and increase the mastery of their horns. Backed by an exceedingly able rhythm section [Phineas Newborn, Jr. on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums], they prove that good jazz, like a fine wine, improves with age.” [Jazz West Coast, p. 212] 

Writing in 1998 as the producer of the CD re-issue of Teddy’s Sunset Eyes Pacific Jazz album [CDP 94848]:

“Teddy Edwards is a superb tenor saxophonist whose probably best known for his Dial duets with Dexter Gordon, the live recording by the first incarnation of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quartet and decades of wonderful small group recordings under his own name. But his career includes big band and film studio work, arranging and even songwriting (Louis Jordan, Nancy Wilson and Lorez Alexandria are among those who've recorded his songs). At 74, he stills writing and playing beautifully.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

Lenny Breau – Magical Guitarist

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

“What I am trying to do is make impressions. I think of myself as a colourist, adding different coulours and shades by using different techniques and touching the guitar in different ways. I like to play sounds you can see if you’ve got your eyes closed. I’ll always be a student because I think of music as never ending.”
- Lenny Breau

“I approach the guitar like a piano. I’ve reached a point where I transcend the instrument. A lot of the stuff I play on the 7-string guitar is supposed to be technically impossible, but I spent over twenty years figuring it out. I play the guitar like a piano, there’s always two things going on at once. I’m thinking melody, but I’m also thinking of a background. I play the accompaniment on the low strings.”
- Lenny Breau

“A kind of modern-day Django Reinhardt, Lenny Breau was enigmatic, unpredictable, and wide-ranging in his life and music. Largely unrecognized except by the select few who are touched by his sphere of brilliance, he improvised and innovated kaleidoscopic fusions of styles and techniques that continue to amaze and confound. With his genius itensely focused on the guitar’s labyrinth of strings and frets, the result was the stuff of legends.”
- Jim Ferguson, Jazz guitar historian, writer and Grammy nominee

The sound of the guitar has been present in our family for as long as I can remember; Italo-American social life wouldn’t be the same without it.

It’s beautiful sound usually came from a classic, Gibson played acoustically, although at times, a basic amplifier was employed.

Later, when recordings came into my life, sometimes “the sound of the guitar” would be strummed as a rhythm guitar by Freddie Green in Count Basie’s rhythm section while at other times Charlie Christian picked and plucked it as a solo instrument in Benny Goodman’s sextet or Barney Kessel both strummed and soloed on it in Oscar Peterson’s classic trio with Ray Brown on bass.

And then there was the discovery of the instrument’s Jazz virtuosos: Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass and Bireli Lagrene along with what Neil Tesser refers to as the “… softer tone and less pronounced attack of Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney and Johnny Smith” [I still can’t stop listening to the gorgeous recordings Johnny made with Stan Getz in the early 1950s]. One could also add Jim Hall and John Pisano to the latter group.

Guitar players have always fascinated me.

Which brings me to the night in 1968 that I walked into Shelly Manne Hole and encountered guitarist Lenny Breau.

I had no idea how to categorize his style, but he just captivated me. I sat there, spellbound through the entire set and absorbed as much of it in as I could.

Although he was accompanied on the gig by bass and drums, it was his solo guitar work that just blew me away. His work that night was a magical tour de force; I had never heard anything like it before and rarely since.

Much to my delight, RCA issued an album in 1969 of Lenny’s gig at Shelly and acquiring it gave me access to the following liner notes by guitarist Johnny Smith that helped me to understand a bit of what was on offer that night:

The Electric Guitar Rises to New Levels of Musical Excellence in the Hands of Lenny Breau

“In the relatively short career of the electric guitar as a prominent solo instrument there have been many excellent players but com­paratively few guitarists who have contributed new styles and ap­proaches to the instrument.

Lenny Breau has created a new concept and direction for the electric guitar that should remain far beyond the short life-span of a musical fad. He is a young man with a musically inquisitive mind for new thoughts and devices that give his playing a refreshing and com­manding quality. His technique and performance on the instrument encompass a wide variety of tonal colors and styles that range from sitaristic slurs to some excellently executed flamenco passages. His melodic concepts of jazz are harmonically sound and denote depth of musicianship. The unaccompanied solos are captivating and intrigu­ing with a neoclassic flavor and employ some interesting Chet Atkins-inspired harmonics and amplifier-induced sustained pedal tones.

Drummer Reg Kelln and electric bassist Ron Halldorson contribute to the excellence of this recording. Their constant communication with Lenny is evident in the spontaneous mood and rhythmical changes that occur throughout the performance, which is a refreshing de­parture from some of the over-arranged or completely disjointed "free style" groups.

There will, no doubt, be self-appointed critics who will say that Lenny at times is too exuberant on the guitar and inserts too many dif­ferent thoughts and styles into a song, but, no matter what the criticism, the reservoir of musical knowledge, musicianship and the technique to produce are there and should do nothing but improve and contribute to a higher and higher standard and acceptance of the electric guitarist.

- Johnny Smith”

Thanks to CD re-issues, over the years I have been able to acquire a number of Lenny’s recordings and these covers along with some photos of Lenny are featured in the following video tribute to him.

See what you think of Lenny’s solo guitar stylings on the version of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy that forms the audio track to the video.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Stan Levey – Straight-Ahead and Always Swinging

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

“En fait, Stan a été influence par le jeu de Kenny Clarke sur la cymbal ride en accompagnement et par Max Roach pour les solos.”
- Georges Paczynski, Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz, Vol. 2

“The art of jazz drumming has come a long way since the days of the bass drum player in the marching bands of ole New Orleans. Today we have come to expect a drummer to be an excellent technician, a well rounded percussionist, capable of improvising as well as any solo instrumentalist in any musical aggregation. It would take a very thick book to discuss the requirements of being a jazz drummer, and even then, it would be necessary to interpret the printed word through skins, sticks, cymbals, and mechanical contrivances in order to express yourself and your feeling for the music.

No doubt about it, drums and drummers are popular subjects; whether you're an avid jazz enthusiast or a bandleader, it is always interesting to hear and compare notes on the way different drummers play.”
-Howard Rumsey, Bassist and Jazz Club Operator

“You could set your watch to his time. It was one less thing for me to think about when I was playing.”
- Victor Feldman, Jazz pianist, vibraphonist and drummer

“Mechanical, my foot. You try playing his stuff and see how ‘mechanical’ it is.”

The late drummer, Stan Levey, is the fellow using the strong language [“foot” is substituted here for another part of the anatomy which was actually used by Stan in the quoted remark].

The context for Stan’s reply was his response to a statement that another drummer made about the playing of Max Roach to wit: “Oh, I don’t listen to Max much. He’s too mechanical.”

There is a reason why in his two volume Une Historie De La Batterie De Jazz, which won the 2000 Prix Charles Delauney, author Georges Paczynski follows his chapter on Max Roach with one on Stan Levey.

Stan adored Max.

Indeed, Paczynski subtitles his chapter on Stan :”Stan Levey le virtuose: à l'école de Max Roach.”

Stan was a gruff, no nonsense guy who, at one time, was a prize fighter. He left school at fourteen to make his way in the world, taught himself how to play drums, and did this well enough to be playing with Dizzy Gillespie in his hometown of Philadelphia at the age of sixteen.

Four years later, in 1945, he was working with Diz and Charlie Parker on 52nd Street along with Al Haig on piano and Ray Brown on bass.

Not a bad way to begin a career as a Jazz drummer before even reaching the age of twenty-one [21]!

The early 1940s was also about the time that Max Roach was coming up in the world of bebop and he and Stan were to become lifelong friends. As Howard Rumsey, Jazz bassist, who also was in charge of the music at the Lighthouse Café for many years, explains in his insert notes to Max and Stan’s Drummin’ The Blues:

“Ever since they first met on New York's famous 52nd Street in 1942, Max Roach and Stan Levey have felt intuitively that each was the other's personal preference. Their professional careers are closely paralleled, starting with almost four years on the "Street" with "Diz" and "Bird". In fact, Max was with Diz at the Onyx and Stan was across the street at the Spotlight with Bird when the modern period of jazz was officially born. Since then they have exchanged jobs many times with many great bands.”

Max would eventually recommend that Stan take his place with Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars at the famous 30 Pier Avenue Club in Hermosa Beach, CA and Stan stayed at the club from about 1955 to 1960.

Stan described his early years in the business this way to Gordon Jack in Fifties Jazz Talk, An Oral Perspective:

“I was completely self-taught because we couldn't afford a teacher, and that's why I play left-handed although I am right-handed; it just felt easier that way. I didn't learn to read really well until I joined Kenton's band in 1952, once again teaching myself. By the time I was doing studio work in the sixties and playing all the mallet instruments, I had become an accom­plished reader. My first big influence was Chick Webb, who I saw with Ella when my father took me to the Earle Theater when I was about ten years old.” [p. 129]

And, about his first impressions of Max Roach’s drumming, Stan had this to say:

"The ferocity of the playing was new to me. I had never heard time split up like that. Max's playing had music within it. . . he changed the course of drumming." [p. 130]

I got to know Stan quite well during the last three years of his stint at The Lighthouse and I came to understand that he always had a chip on his shoulder about being self-taught. 

Young drummers bugged him; they were always asking him technical questions about the instrument.

And because he couldn’t explain his answers in terminology or “drum speak,” he usually mumbled something and walked toward the back of the club.

What were you going to do, chase after him? The man was huge. He blocked out the sun.

Stan was never menacing or unkind in any way, he was just self-conscious about the fact that he didn’t have a studied background in the instrument.

Even though he was self-taught, Stan took the most difficult path to becoming a Jazz drummer.

By this I mean that he played everything open; he didn’t cheat or fudge. He didn’t press; didn’t finesse; didn’t adopt shortcuts.

Ironically, for someone who had never formally studied drums, he played them in a more “legit” way than most of the other Jazz drummers in the 1940s, 50s and 60s – many of whom were also self-taught.

To comprehend an open or “legit” sound, think of the crackling snare drums that almost sound like gunshots while listening to a Scottish Black Watch fife, bagpipe and drum corps or, most other drum and bugle corps.

Every drum stroke is sounded; nothing is muffled; nothing is pressed into the drums. Everything is struck. Art Blakey’s famous snare drum press roll would be unacceptable in such an environment.

To play in this manner, one’s hands need to be strong and they need to be fast.

Enter Stan Levey.

Enter Max Roach.

Although they came to their respective styles from different directions – Max had taken lessons - both approached drums the same way. Each relied on open strokes.

In Max’s case, because he had a sound grasp of the basic, drum rudiments and learned to cleverly combine them in a syncopated manner that particularly fit the Bebop style of Jazz, his playing could be described as a “mechanical” in the sense of structured or fundamental.

This is especially the case when Max’s solo style is compared to that of other bebop and hard bop drummers such as Roy Haynes, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones.

But Stan didn’t hear the loser and freer drumming of Blakey and Philly Joe when he was putting things together, he heard Max [and also Kenny Clarke, Sid Catlett, and Chick Webb].

And even though he didn’t know the technical names for them, he learned to play solos in a manner similar to Max’s “mechanical” or rudimental style.

I knew Stan to be a fiercely loyal person and a very competitive one.

When your hero and your friend is being “put down” or “disrespected,” isn’t it all the more reason to be defensive and perhaps curt with those implying such disapproval?

Stan knew that what Max was playing wasn’t easy to do. But to his ever-lasting credit, he broke it down and incorporated many elements of Roach’s approach into his own. And, he did it all by ear!

Stan didn’t like to solo. He loved to keep time. He referred to it as: “Doing my job back there.”

And “keep time” he did, with the best of them.

Louie Bellson once said: “Stan’s time is alive. It has a pulse that you can always feel.”

Ray Brown declared him to be – “A rock, and a magnificent one, at that.”

Ella Fitzgerald said: “He never strays and never gets in the way.”

Peggy Lee “loved the intensity [of his time-keeping].”

The other thing that Stan loved to do was keep time FAST!

Few could rival him, and this from a naturally right-handed guy who was playing an open, three stroke cymbal beat with his left hand!!

Some of the best recorded examples of Stan’s time-keeping speed can be found on the Bebop, Wee [Allen’s Alley] and Lover Come Back to Me tracks on Dizzy Gillespie’s For Musicians Only album [Verve 837-435-2].

With someone like Stan, the highest compliment you could pay him would be that as a drummer he was - straight-ahead and always swinging.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Christian Jacob: A Jazz Pianist, Composer and Arranger of Distinction

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

“Descriptive words such as ‘virtuoso’ and ‘genius’ are not words I easily throw around. When I first heard Christian Jacob I knew right away his potential for deserving those words and certainly after his tenure with my band I was sure of it!”
- Maynard Ferguson

Every so often, we have a good idea.

Like the time that we suggested to pianist Christian Jacob that he consider doing a recording of the music of the late French pianist, Michel Petrucciani.

Nobody plays Michel’s music; it’s too difficult, let alone, too idiosyncratic.

But in my heart I knew that if anyone could make a success out of attempting it, Christian would be the one and he would make his own statement in the process. He’s too much of a musician and too wonderful a human being not to succeed with a musical exposition honoring the memory of Michel.

After taking a step back to make sure that I wasn’t trying to be cute with some kind of trite idea centered around French Jazz pianist [Christian was born in Metz] plays the music of another French Jazz pianist [Michel was born in Orange], Christian was kind enough to indulge me with a listening of Petrucciani’s music. – which he had never heard!

He and his wife Wilder were at our house for dinner so while it was being prepared by my kind and generous wife, up we went to my study where I played him Michel’s medley of Thelonious Monk’s medley of I Mean You and ‘Round Midnight from the Michel Petrucciani Au Théâtre des Champs Elysées Dreyfus CD [FDM 36570-2].

Christian is not a wordy guy, After intently absorbing all that was on offer in Michel’s 12 minute and 37 second performance, he looked up at me and said: “Sure, Let’s give it a try.”

What guts – oops, I mean - sang-froid!

Most guys would have looked at me and said something to the effect of “Are you crazy? Nobody but Michel can play on these tunes.”

But not Christian; not when there is a challenge to be met. This from one of the quietest, kindest and unpretentious people on the planet. But put him on a piano bench and he becomes a tenacious tiger.

To make a long story, short, I grouped together a bunch of Michel’s tunes and mailed them to Christian.

For a variety of reasons, it took some time for it all to come together, but the result was the issuance in 2006 of Christian’s self-produced Contradictions: A Look at the Music of Michel Petrucciani. [Christian has his own website should you wish to locate information about ordering the CD].

It was worth the wait as the quality of Christian musical tribute to Michel exceeded my expectations.

Christian allowed me the honor of writing the following introduction to the album:

“With the death of Michel Petrucciani on the night of January 5th 1999 at the ridiculously young age of 36, Francis Marmande wrote in La Chambre d'Amour:

‘If the death of a musician touches us in a special way, it is because they take their secrets with them — the secret of their unique musical sound, the secret of their precise relation to space, air and the movement of their bodies that they alone knew how to produce.’

Many of the "secrets" that made Michel and his music so distinctive live on in his legacy of recordings.   However, for those intent on trying to unlock the essence of his musical uniqueness, there are perhaps keys contained in the body of Michel's original compositions left largely unexplored since his passing — until now.

In Christian Jacob, Michel may have found a fellow countryman and kindred spirit who, through his exploration of Michel's tunes, offers some fresh insights into Petrucciani's genius while also revealing his own brilliance.

Such a voyage of discovery is not for the faint of heart. For not only are the compositions difficult to navigate, but Michel himself had become such an authoritative and powerful player by the time of his death that Christian and the trio would be pressed to add to their richness and complexity.

As you will hear in this recording, through his musical courage, strength and originality, Christian has more than met this challenge.  Assisted and inspired by Trey Henry on bass and Ray Brinker on drums, Christian and the trio have created a sparkling homage to Michel.

Into the ‘... space, air and movement in time’ created by the texture and tone of Michel's compositions, Christian has interposed a vitality and an inventive­ness that serve to bring alive Michel's music once again while at the same time making it his own.

It is almost as though Michel had left this music behind for Christian to find and, in so doing, create a bond of musical affection between them. After all, ultimately, our immortality is contained in the memory of others.”

Here are Christian’s introductory notes to the recording:

“Thanks To Steven, for coming up with the original idea for this CD. You were the first to hear its potential. To Dom [Camardella, recording engineer], for being such a perfect pro at what you do. To Michael [Gottlieb, photographer], for those great moments you are able to capture on film. To Jenny [Keresztes], you're the best, your graphic art is always so perfect for my projects. … To Trey [Henry], for being the "road less traveled" bassist, and I mean that in every way. To Ray [Brinker, drummer], for being yourself, your ability to fuse this trio together is astounding. To Tierney [Sutton, vocalist], for your never ending support. To Wilder [Jacob], for being my light. I am so aware of your partnership, and how this project wouldn't be without you. I love you! And finally, To Michel, for coming around this earth of ours and showing me how things are done around here; I feel so close to your music, I just wish I had known you personally. Merci mon ami!”

Gene Lees wrote this overview of Christian’s early years in music through to his 1990s association as a pianist and musical director for trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau orchestra.

Christian Jacob started studying piano at the age of four and a half. His father, a jeweler who played piano part-time, gave Christian a book of old songs, including some of George Gershwin's. Christian was immediately fascinated by the harmony.

He won first prize in piano performance at the Conservatoire National de Region in his native Metz in 1970, when he was twelve years old. In 1978, at the age of twenty, he took the same prize at the Con­servatoire National Superieur in Paris. ‘I was always into jazz,' Christian says, ‘and I was playing jazz for recreation, though my teachers at the Conservatory didn't like it and were telling me not to do it. I was interested in it really very early.’ After graduating from the Conservatoire, he went home to teach piano in his old school in Metz. Then he went to the Berklee Col­lege of Music, where he took a degree in professional music magna cum laude. He won the Joe Zawinul Jazz Masters Award at Berklee in 1985, and in 1986 the Oscar Peterson Jazz Masters Award. He then joined the staff of the college, teaching piano there from 1986 to 1990.

A fellow student at Berklee was Wilder Ferguson, one of Maynard Ferguson's four daughters. She was studying voice. In 1984 Christian gave her a tape to give to May­nard, who was impressed by it — so much so that he began to use Christian on the road in a quintet. Meanwhile, relations with Wilder Ferguson were growing closer, and in October 1989 she and Christian were married. Soon after that they moved to California where Christian became musical director and arranger for May-nard's Big Bop Nouveau Band.

Christian has also worked with Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez, Steve Gadd, Peter Erskine, John Abercrombie, and Benny Carter, and toured extensively with Gary Burton, who recorded some of Christian's compositions.” [Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, p. 184].

More information about the last decade or so of Christian’s career are available on his website. The highlights include his long association with Jazz vocalist Tierney Sutton, performing and writing for both the Bill Holman and Carl Saunders big bands, and fronting his trio on record and in concert and club appearances.

Equally important to who he is and where he works as a Jazz musician is the fact that Christian has continued to grow and develop as a person of quality, both in terms of his music and in terms of his character.

As Louis Armstrong once said: “Jazz is who you are.”

Christian Jacob’s qualities as a person of skill, substance and sensitivity radiate through his music.

Merci, mon ami. The world is a richer place because of who you are, Christian.

The audio track on the following video tribute to Christian was recorded during his trio’s January 29, 2006 performance at George Klabin’s Rising Jazz Stars Foundation in Beverly Hills, CA. The tune is Michel Petrucciani’s Brazilian Suite No. 1

Christian and the trio, Trey Henry on bass and Ray Brinker on drums, would go into Sound Design Studios in Santa Barbara, CA the following day to conclude their recordings for the Contradictions tribute CD to Michel that began on December 30, 2005 and January 17, 2006, respectively.