Thursday, October 31, 2013

New York Voices Christmas CD - “Let It Snow"

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

"New York Voices lives up to its reputation as the most exciting vocal ensemble in current jazz· to collect such quality voices in one group is rare enough, yet the real trick of New York Voices is how well they mesh·" - Boston Herald

"· full of life, teeming with energy and bursting with melody·a thoroughly entertaining experience·"_
- All Music Guide

I know that there are about two months before Christmas as I post this review, but one would hardly know it from the way the retail stores are decorated.  Everywhere I go, it feels like the holidays are imminent.

One of the nicest aspects of this time of year are the new Christmas albums that appear.

A few have grabbed my fancy and I thought I would bring them to your attention in a series of holiday blog features.

Let’s start with the latest from Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge, collectively known as The New York Voices.

In celebration of their 25th anniversary together, The New York Voices released Let It Snow on October 29, 2013 [Five Cent Records FCR-0001].

The selections on offer are listed on the following image of the CD tray plate.

Let It Snow finds New York Voices - Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge - celebrating a host of traditional and sacred holiday classics as well as secular favorites. With the assistance of Grammy Award winning producer and engineer, Elliot Scheiner (Steely Dan, Eagles, Manhattan Transfer, Fleetwood Mac), the quartet has fashioned an album that honors beloved songs, while incorporating sophisticated jazz and swing elements.  Settings vary; a cappella performances mingle with robust arrangements featuring big band and studio orchestra accompaniment.

The result is a diverse program of holiday standards, performed with surprisingly fresh treatments.  The close harmony style that New York Voices embraces is a perfect sound for the holiday season. While the bulk of the arrangements are by founding member and tenor vocalist Damon Meader, additional orchestrators include Don Sebesky, Jorge Calendrelli, Pat Hollenbeck, and Michele Weir.

Let It Snow is a long time in coming.  As Meader notes: "We started adding Christmas tunes to our December concerts many years ago.  At first it was just a handful, but over the years, our holiday repertoire expanded.  In 2005, we were invited to tour with the Boston Pops for a full Christmas season.  This is when our book really took off, and we've been planning to record this CD ever since.  It took awhile, but we finally found the time and opportunity to make it happen!"
The CD starts off with the high impact big band arrangement of "Let It Snow," followed by a pairing of lush ballads, "Christmas Song - Christmas Time is Here." "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" is then given an old school big band treatment, reminiscent of the Count Basie Orchestra sound. A number of a cappella performances are also featured, including "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."  The intimate voices-only settings bring the artful NYV sound into full focus, contrasting effectively with the large ensemble pieces.

Other highlights include a rollicking rendition of "We Three Kings," and a more traditional treatment of J.S. Bach's "Sleepers, Wake!," which serves as a warm diversion from the jazz-based harmonies of the majority of songs.  A moody "ECM-esque" rendition of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" features Peter Eldridge as lead vocalist, surrounded by full orchestra and lush complementary group vocals.  Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Kim Nazarian, are all featured as lead vocalists on "The Merry Medley," a collection of three holiday favorites:  "The Man with the Bag," "I'd Like You for Christmas," and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

"I Wonder As I Wander" was first recorded by NYV in 1991 as part of a "cast of thousands" GRP Christmas Collection.  "We've continued to perform this one through the years, and we've always wanted to re-record this arrangement," says Darmon.  "I added a big band accompaniment, in a somewhat Gil Evans-esque style, which adds to the introspective mood of the tune."

Let It Snow wraps up with a high-energy rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," followed by a serene a cappella rendition of "Silent Night."

The internationally acclaimed vocal group has become renowned for their excellence in jazz and the art of group singing. Like the great jazz vocal groups that have come before, such as Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Singers Unlimited and Manhattan Transfer, the foursome of Kim Nazarian, Lauren Kinhan, Darmon Meader and Peter Eldridge have learned from the best and taken the art form to new levels. Time Out Chicago has said of New York Voices: "We dare say there may be no better way to understand the wit and wink of jazz harmony than via these Voices."

The group has released nine CDs on various labels including GRP, RCA, MCG Jazz, Concord, and Palmetto. The group has also starred on two Grammy award winning albums: Count Basie Orchestra with New York Voices, Live at MCG and Brazilian Dreams (Paquito D'Rivera featuring New York Voices & Claudio Roditi). They've earned wide acclaim for their performances throughout the world at venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the Blue Note (New York and Japan) as well as the opera houses of Vienna and Zurich, as well as the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

In addition to their various college and high school workshops, the New York Voices hold an annual vocal jazz camp at Bowling Green State University every August.  All four members are also active as solo vocalists, and have each released numerous recordings.

You can find out more about The New York Voices as well as order information at their website and order information is also available there and through most online retailers.

Here’s a sampling of the music on the CD.


Sunday, October 27, 2013

George, Ira and Victor

Victor Feldman on vibes with Sam Jones on bass and Louis Hayes on drums.

Stay with this one; it's a burner from beginning to end.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ben van den Dungen – Ciao City

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

“In my career I have recorded numerous albums, but I believe this recording might be the most memorable one for me. The atmosphere was so relaxed and there was nothing to disturb that. I am proud of this rhythm section. With these guys it's simply impossible not to stay focused and be inspired by the music. We have recorded a large amount of music in a small period, so there are quite a lot of tunes on this album, but you know, I just couldn't decide on the selection.”
- Ben van den Dungen

One of the great things about writing a Jazz blog is being introduced to old friends in new contexts.

“Old” in the sense of having heard their music on prior recordings and “new” in the sense of now being given the chance to listen them on their latest CD’s.

Such was the case recently when the Jazz and Worldmusic Agency contacted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles about our interest in a review copy of saxophonist Ben van den Dungen’s latest disc Ciao City.

I was familiar with Ben’s work from his association with Nueva Manteca, a fabulous Latin Jazz group led by pianist Jan Laurenz Hartong . This eight-piece band are a Netherlands-based Latin jazz outfit who produce a highly authentic distillation of Latin music and also embrace traditions such as Arabic, classical, Dutch Antillean and salsa. I’d also heard him on some quintet tracks with trumpeter Rik Mol, one of the more impressive young musicians on the Dutch Jazz scene.

If you love the big, round, full tone on tenor saxophone in the tradition of Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins then you are halfway home with Ben’s sound. And if your into the adventurous harmonics made famous by John Coltrane on both tenor and soprano saxophone, then you are all-the-way-there with Ben who manages to blend all of these together on the “big horn.”

Ben explains these influences this way in the sleeve notes:

“With all my love and appreciation I would like to thank all great musicians for their wonderful music and ideas. They have been - and still are - an enormous inspiration for me. They are with too many to mention, but be sure I carry them all around in my heart and in my music.”

Ben is no pardon-me-while-I-swing Jazz musician; he’s in your face with a big, blustery sound and a very forceful attack.

On Ciao City, he steps out in a quartet setting with a rhythm section of Miguel Rodriquez on piano, Marius Beets on bass and Gijs Dijkhuizen on drums.

Miguel Rodriguez is a name that is new to me, but bassist Marius Beets seems to be everywhere present on Jazz produced in Holland as a musician, producer and sound engineer [he served as the sound engineer on this recording], and Gijs is an up-and-coming drummer who I’ve heard play in a variety of settings, including those involving his brother, tenor saxophonist Sjoerd Dijkhuizen.

The media release accompanied the recording states:

“As often in the music of Ben van den Dungen, the music is made by an amazing combination of personalities that creates fresh music, inspired by the Jazz tradition and played with a lot of energy.”

After playing through the fourteen tracks on Ciao City, the impression that first came to mind was how well paced the music was and how diverse it was in terms of its construction.

The opening title track is an up-tempo burner based around a three-note bass vamp that hammers home with insistency due to the driving beat of Beets and Dijkhuizen. Both Ben and Miguel glide over this swinging pulse before Ben puts the brakes on and delves into an out-of-tempo cadenza to close the piece.

Next up is M&M, a blues that settles into a relaxed groove that features Ben on soprano, a difficult instrument to achieve an acceptable tone on, but one that sounds mellow given his control of its vibrato. Ben and Miguel achieve a John Coltrane-McCoy Tyner type of mood on this track, as well as, on Kenny Dorham’s rarely heard Escapade that features later in the disc.

The third track – The Mohican and The Great Spirit – is not often heard these days, although it was composed by Jazz great, Horace Silver. Played as a 9/8 ostinato [a motif or phrase that persistently repeats in the same musical voice], both Ben and Miguel really shine as they take advantage of the repetitive rhythmic phrase to build intriguing solos. Gijs get to let it out a bit as the band extends the vamp before closing the tune.

Next up is Ben’s Streetpeople, set in a blues-drenched-crawl of a tempo that really shows off Ben’s marvelous skills on soprano saxophone.

Cole Porter’s chord filled So In Love follows and is stylized by Gijs’ faced-paced Latin Jazz beat with the tempo exploding into a fast 4/4 clip for the solos. Both Ben and Miguel blast through the complicated chord progressions with reckless abandon creating an exhilarating, musical rollercoaster ride.

There is so much music going on in Ciao City that it is difficult to realize that at this point, you’ve only listened to five of the fourteen tracks on the CD!

In addition to a beautiful rendering of Thelonious Monk’s Pannonica, which shows off Ben’s saxophone mastery to full advantage, there is the aforementioned performance of Kenny Dorham’s Escapade, five more originals by Ben – The Pimp, Someone Like You, What About That, Don’t Hesitate, On The Flipside and two by Marius Beets, The Captain and Shuffle De Buffle, which can be heard on the video that concludes this piece.

Ben has also made available the first two tracks of the CD as Soundcloud audio-only files and we have included these as well to help give you a full appreciation of the wonderful music on Ben’s Ciao City.

If you are a fan of straight-ahead Jazz, you can’t do much better than the fourteen interestingly arranged and beautifully played tracks on Ben’s new recording.

Order information can be found at, and

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Nueva Manteca - Saint Louis Blues/All Blues

Some of the best Latin Jazz you ever heard from a band based in - The Netherlands!

Click the directional arrows in the lower right-hand corner of each video and watch these nicely taped videos in full screen. They come to us courtesy of Nueva Manteca tenor saxophonist, Ben van den Dungen. Check out Ben's brilliant solo on All Blues.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles plans to have a review of Ben's new CD Ciao City posted to the blog in the coming days.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Jim Hall: The Quiet Guitarist [From The Archives]

Jim Hall has been one of my favorite Jazz musicians since I first heard him with the drummer Chico Hamilton's original quintet way back in the 1950's.

I was delighted to find the lengthy Library of Congress interview with Jim on the video that concludes this piece.

There nothing like a Jazz musician talking about the highlights of a career and how they approach Jazz in their own words.

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

“Jim Hall is the perfect musical partner.”
- Joachim Berendt, Jazz writer and producer

Today [12/4/2012] is Jazz guitarist Jim Hall’s eighty-second birthday and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be nice to honor him on these pages with a profile that touches upon his many contributions to the music.

Jim Hall is such a quiet, understated and unassuming person that it’s very easy to overlook his many accomplishments in a career that has spanned almost 60 years!

Gene Lees wrote of him:

“Jim Hall sometimes is compared by critics to Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, but then probably every guitarist in jazz has a debt to Christian who, in his short life — he died in 1942 aged twenty-four — became the most important early explorer of amplified guitar as a solo instrument. However, Jim and his trom­bonist friend Bob Brookmeyer both cite the unsung Jimmy Raney among their influences. From Raney, they say, they developed their integrated and highly compositional approach to the improvised solo, the pensive development of motifs.

Jim started playing guitar professionally in Cleveland when he was in his teens, and he studied at the highly respected Cleve­land Institute of Music, from which he received a bachelor of music degree in 1955. He then settled in Los Angeles where he became a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, meanwhile studying classical guitar with Vincente Gomez. From 1956 to 1959 he was part of the Jimmy Giuffre Three. Then Jim moved to New York where he was for a time under the curse of his association with so-called West Coast jazz. That ended when one of the major jazz icons, Sonny Rollins, hired him.

Jim had close associations, too, with Paul Desmond, with whom he recorded a series of superb albums for RCA, and with Bill Evans. He and Bill recorded two stun­ning duo albums together, achieving a rap­port that at times was uncanny. Another close associate has been the bassist Ron Carter, with whom he has worked as a duo from time to time since 1984.”

Elaborating further on the duo albums that Jim made with pianist Bill Evans, author Peter Pettinger remarks in his Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings biography:

“One of the mysteries of music that defies analysis is the ability of two musicians to play especially well together, to feel and instinctively adapt to what the other is doing. The duet recording made by Evans and Hall, Undercurrent [and a latter collaboration entitled Intermodulation], exemplified this secret. In this sublime meeting, the artists shared a common ground of musical values, Hall confessing to having long been influenced by Evans. Both, too, had a strong feeling for chamber music: the interactive trio was the pianist's aspiration, and Jim Hall's small-group pedigree was high, especially within the intimate settings of the Jimmy Giuffre 3. Quality of sound encompasses a blending of timbres, in this case lovingly conjured; singing tone shines out from every note.

There is a hazard attached to combining piano and guitar, both essen­tially chordal instruments. Although jazz musicians use alternative chords with ease, the simultaneous choice of two valid but different chords may well not work. Evans and Hall had the intelligence and mutual awareness to escape this snare. And to avoid textural overcrowding, both were conscious of the value of space, every note being made to count in their joint tapestry.”

James Isaacs describes Hall’s value this way in his insert notes to Intermodulation:

“While Evans was bringing jazz piano to a new pinnacle of sheer beauty, Hall was spending the first half of the 1960's as. in the words of the German critic Joachim E. Berendt, ‘the perfect part­ner.’ He shared the front line with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and flugelhornist Art Farmer in two of the outstanding small groups of any decade, and recorded a series of debo­nair LPs with the late altoist Paul Desmond.”

Since the mid-1980s, thanks to long association with two labels, Concord and Telarc, Jim Hall has  performed and made recordings with some of the best and brightest musicians on the current Jazz scene including trumpeters Tom Harrell and Ryan Kisor, trombonists Conrad Herwig and Jim Pugh, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Chris Potter, guitarist Pat Metheny, and bassists Don Thompson, Rufus Reed, Steve La Spina, Scott Colley and George Mraz.

In one of his timeless and superbly written essays for The New Yorker magazine that have been collected in his American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, Whitney Balliett offered the following depiction of Jim Hall:

“Hall, though, doesn't look capable of creating a stir of any sort. He is slim and of medium height, and a lot of his hair is gone. The features of his long, pale face are chastely proportioned, and are accented by a recently cultivated R.A.F. mustache. He wears old-style gold-rimmed spectacles, and he has three principal expressions: a wide smile, a child's frown, and a calm, pleased playing mask—eyes closed, chin slightly lifted, and mouth ajar. He could easily be the affable son of the stony-faced farmer in "American Gothic." His hands and feet are small, and he doesn't have any hips, so his clothes, which are generally casual, tend to hang on him as if they were still in the closet. When he plays, he sits on a stool, his back an arc, his feet propped on a high rung, and his knees akimbo. He holds his guitar at port arms.

For many years, Hall's playing matched his private, nebulous appearance. When he came up, in the mid-fifties, with Chico Hamilton's vaguely avant-garde quintet (it had a cello and no piano), and then appeared on a famous pickup recording, "Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West," that was led by John Lewis and involved Bill Perkins, Percy Heath, and Hamilton, he sounded stiff and academic. His solos were pleasantly designed, but they didn't always swing. But as he moved through groups led by Jimmy Giuffre, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, and Art Farmer, his deliberateness softened and the right notes began landing in the right places.

Then he married Jane [in 1965; she is a psychotherapist], and his playing developed an inventiveness and lyricism that make him preeminent among contempo­rary jazz guitarists and put him within touching distance of the two grand masters—Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. Listening to Hall now is like turning onionskin pages: one lapse of your attention and his solo is rent. Each phrase evolves from its predecessor, his rhythms are balanced, and his harmonic and melodic ideas are full of parentheses and asides. His tone is equally demanding. He plays both electric and acoustic guitars. On the former, he sounds like an acoustic guitarist, for he has an angelic touch and he keeps his amplifier down; on the latter, a new instrument specially designed and built for him, he has an even more gossamer sound.

Hall is exceptional in another way. In the thirties and forties, Christian and Reinhardt put forward certain ideals for their instrument—spareness, the use of silence, and the legato approach to swinging—and for a while every jazz guitarist studied them. Then the careering melodic flow of Charlie Parker took hold, and jazz guitarists became arpeggio-ridden. But Hall, sidestepping this aspect of Parker, has gone directly to Christian and Reinhardt, and, plumping out their skills with the harmonic advances that have since been made, has perfected an attack that is fleet but tight, passionate but oblique. And he is singular for still another reason. Guitar­ists are inclined to be an ingrown society, but Hall listens constantly to other instrumentalists, especially tenor saxophonists (Ben Webster, Cole-man Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins) and pianists (Count Basie, John Lewis, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett), and he attempts to adapt to the guitar their phrasing and tonal qualities.

In his solos he asserts nothing but says a good deal. He loves Duke Ellington's slow ballads, and he will start one with an ad-lib chorus in which he glides softly over the melody, working just behind the beat, dropping certain notes and adding others, but steadfastly celebrating its melodic beauties. He clicks into tempo at the beginning of the second chorus, and, after pausing for several beats, plays a gentle, ascending six-note figure that ends with a curious, ringing off-note. He pauses again, and, taking the close of the same phrase, he elaborates on it in an ascending-descending double-time run, and then skids into several behind-the-beat chords, which give way to a single-note line that moves up and down and concludes on another off-note. He raises his volume at the beginning of the bridge and floats through it with softly ringing chords; then, slipping into the final eight bars, he fashions a precise, almost declamatory run, pauses a second at its top, and works his way down with two glancing arpeggios.  He next sinks to a whisper, and finishes with a bold statement of the melody that dissolves into a flatted chord, upon which the next soloist gratefully builds his opening statement.”

Fortunately for all of his many fans, on March 30, 2009, the Library of Congress sponsored the following video interview of Jim Hall recounting the highlights of his career and his approach to Jazz guitar. Larry Applebaum moderates the discussion.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Remembering The Mastersounds [From The Archives]

Appearing as it did on 5/31/2008, this feature was one of the blog's earliest.

As was often the case in those "early days," the piece was posted without a video which exemplifies the music under discussion.

That has now been corrected with the addition of a not-very-easy-to-find montage of images of the group and its recordings at the conclusion of this profile.

It was always been a tough go to find enough regular work to keep a small Jazz combo with local or regional appeal going.

Given these circumstances, the miracle of The Mastersounds is that they lasted as long as they did and left such a relatively rich recorded legacy.

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

The Mastersounds were formed in 1957 and included Charles Frederick “Buddy” Montgomery on vibes, Richie Crabtree on piano, William Howard “Monk” Montgomery on bass [originally a Fender electric bass, but later an upright string bass] and Benny Barth on drums. The Montgomery Brothers were natives of Indianapolis, IN as was their more famous guitar playing brother Wes, who was to join with them on two of their group LPs.

Monk Montgomery developed the idea for the combo while living in Seattle after he got off the road with the Lionel Hampton Big Band in 1956. According to Ralph J. Gleason, a down beat columnist at that time: “Monk, from his experience in Seattle, was convinced a good jazz group would have a chance to work in that city and he was right.”

The Mastersounds opened at Dave’s Blue Room on January 14, 1957 for a successful three month engagement. However, a dearth of work followed prompting the group to pool its meager resources and send Monk Montgomery on a trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles looking for gigs and a recording contract.

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Monk Montgomery stopped by The Jazz Showcase, a then newly formed club on venerable Market Street with a unique “soft drink only” policy. Dave Glickman and Ray Gorum, owner and manager of the club, respectively, upon hearing the Mastersounds tapes Monk Montgomery had brought along, booked the group into the room beginning in September, 1957 for an unlimited engagement.

The fairy-tale quality of Monk Montgomery’s California trip was to get even better when he continued his ‘quest’ down to Hollywood. There he met fellow bassist Leroy Vinnegar whose immediate reaction to listening to the Mastersounds demo tapes was to call Dick Bock, president of World Pacific Records. Upon hearing them, Bock signed the group to a contract that would result in six albums being produced for the World Pacific/Pacific Jazz Series until The Mastersounds disbanded as a performing group in December, 1959.

Sadly, none of the Pacific Jazz recorded legacy of the Mastersounds has found its way onto compact disc. Ironically, the group reunited in the recording studios of Fantasy Records on August 10 and November 2, 1960 and the two albums that group made on these dates [Fantasy 3305 and 8862] have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds Fantasy FCD 24770-2. The cover art for this CD is by Ray Avery and is shown as the graphic lead-in to this article.

The CD tray plate annotations offers the following comments about The Mastersounds:

"Because their instrumentation of vibes-piano-bass-drums mirrored that of the contemporaneous Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the finest and most celebrated groups of all time, the Mastersounds may have been somewhat overlooked. Moreover, the Mastersounds best known members, vibist-arranger Charles “Buddy Montgomery [b. 1930] and William “Monk” Montgomery [1921-1982], who pioneered the electric bass in jazz, were the younger and older brothers, respectively, of Wes Montgomery, merely the greatest jazz guitarist of the post-bop era. (The ensemble was completed by drummer Benny Barth who, like the Montgomerys, was from Indianapolis and pianist Richie Crabtree). Still, the West Coast foursome’s coolly soulful, tastefully-arranged approach won them their share of fans, as well as the 1959 Down Beat Critic’s Poll for Best New Group."

At World Pacific, The Mastersounds first LP – Jazz Showcase … Introducing the Mastersounds [PJM-403] incorporated many tunes and arrangements that had become staples of their repertoire during the group’s tenure at the club including a spirited [an oft-requested] version of Bud Powell’s Un Poco LocoWes’ Tune by Wes Montgomery, and Dexter’s Deck by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. This debut album also offers intriguing Buddy Montgomery arrangements on such standards as Lover, If I Should Lose You, That Old Devil Moon and Spring is Here.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view, what followed this initial release were three Mastersounds albums on World Pacific which were intended to capitalize on the Jazz-Impressions-of-Broadway-Show craze that swept the country in the late 1950s.

In the span of about two years, Dick Bock was to release The King and I: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [PJM-405], Kismet: An Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1243] which included Wes Montgomery, and Flower Drum Song: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1252].

These three LPs were a commercial success for Dick Bock’s label and helped to enhance public awareness of the Mastersounds. Somewhat surprisingly, given the inappropriateness or unwieldiness of much of the material for Jazz treatments, each does contain some interesting music. 

The King and I offers intricate arrangements by Buddy Montgomery particularly on Getting to Know You and Shall We DanceKismet has a lovely interpretation of Baubles, Bangles and Beads and some fresh ideas on how to syncopate the usually stodgy Stranger in ParadiseFlower Drum Song with tunes such as Love Look AwayGrant Avenue, Chop Suey and I’m Going to Like it Here provide many opportunities to employ pentatonic scales, modal vamps and even a Max-Roach-tympani-mallet extended drum solo by Benny Barth.

It wasn’t until late in 1958 with the issuance of Ballads and Blues [WP 1260] that the Mastersounds returned to its jazz roots.

This album includes a captivating Blues Medley made up of Milt Jackson’s Bluesology, Dizzy’s rarely heard Purple Sounds, and John Lewis’ Fontessa, as well as, first-rate interpretations of Miles’ Solar and Dizzy’s The Champ.

In late 1958 and throughout 1959, the Mastersounds became a frequent fixture at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, while also appearing that year at the Blue Note in Chicago, Birdland in New York and Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival.

With their return to Southern California in 1959 for a stint at Jazzville in Hollywood, Dick Bock picked their April 11th concert at Pasadena Junior College to record an issue their only in-performance recording – The Mastersounds in Concert [WP 1269].

As C.H. Garrigues, jazz critic of The San Francisco Examiner at the time comments in his liner notes for the recording:

“From the opening of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ through the tongue-in-cheek sentimentality of ‘In a Sentimental Mood,” into the flying carpet of ‘Love for Sale,’ through the thoughtfully lyric development of ‘Two Different Worlds,’ … it would be difficult to find any area of sincere jazz feeling in which they are not at home.”

And, in celebration of their warm reception as artists-in-residence at their beloved North Beach San Francisco bistro, The Jazz Workshop, at the end of 1958, World Pacific released The Mastersounds Play Compositions of Horace Silver at the Jazz Workshop [WP-1282].

With their sensitive interpretations of Horace’s Ecaroh, Enchantment, Nica’s Dream, Doodlin’, [the-all-too-rarely-heard] Moonrays and Buhania, as Richard Bock points out in his liner notes:

“The music of Horace Silver provides a perfect vehicle for the Mastersounds to project their very earthy concept yet sophisticated jazz conception. The group has never been recorded in better form. …

The Mastersounds have reached a jazz maturity that has developed from over three years of playing together. This collection of the music of Horace Silver, one of Jazz’s greatest new composer-arrangers, represents a high point in the Mastersounds’ career.”

For a variety of reasons both personal and professional, the Mastersounds decided to disband as a performing and touring group in 1960, although the fact that they all took up residence in the greater San Francisco area after this decision made it easy for them to regroup later in the year to record the two sessions for Fantasy.

From the standpoint of what might have been, and to my great delight since these are their only recordings in a digital format, the Fantasy recordings made on August 10 and November 2, 1960 which have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds [Fantasy FCD 24770-2] show the group to be in exceptional form both individually and collectively.

The ensemble work is superb, the arrangements are intricately complex, and their improvisations are, to a man, their best on record, especially those of Benny Barth who had developed into a inventive and technically adroit drummer over the 4 year span of the group’s existence.

Unfortunately, the Mastersounds existed during a time when the World of Jazz, unlike today, basked in a surfeit of riches making their superb contributions to the genre all too easy to overlook.

And, with all due respect to Messer’s Jackson, Lewis, Heath and Kay, the Mastersounds during its brief life, were the equal musically, of anything offered by the MJQ with the exception of its longevity which, in and of itself is not always the ultimate standard of judgment.

The problem in any “Age of Excess” is that the star that burns the longest is not necessarily the brightest.

And yet, the existence of the Mastersounds made my formative days in the World of Jazz all the better for having not missed the opportunity to know them and their music.

It is always important to remember those who helped "make you as you go,” thus - a remembrance of the Mastersounds.

[The JazzProfiles editorial staff wishes to acknowledge Ralph J. Gleason, Russ Wilson, Nat Hentoff, Richard Bock and C.H. Garricules whose Mastersounds sleeve notes provided much assistance in the factual and interpretive material contained in this feature.]

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bennie Green: An Appreciation – Gordon Jack

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

Gordon Jack “stopped by” the editorial offices of JazzProfiles recently and absolutely insisted that we take some time off from our efforts at maintaining the blog and generously offered this fine article about the late trombonist Bennie Green as a means of doing so.

Who were we to argue?

Gordon’s Bennie Green feature first appeared in the February 2013 issue of JazzJournal.

For order information, please go here.

© -Gordon Jack/JazzJournal, copyright protected; all rights reserved

“I first heard the distinctive sound of Bennie Green’s trombone around 1960 in Dobell’s jazz record shop in London’s Charing Cross Road. I was buying a copy of ‘Kind Of Blue’ when one of the assistants started playing ‘Walkin’ And Talkin’ – Green’s latest Blue Note release with Eddy Williams and Gildo Mahones. His velvet sound and relaxed delivery was infectious and totally different to the bebop masters of the day like J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, Jimmy Cleveland and Frank Rosolino.

Bennie Green was born on April 16th. 1923 in Chicago and his family was a musical one. With his brother Elbert who later played tenor saxophone with Roy Eldridge he attended the famous DuSable High School whose musical director was the celebrated Walter Dyett. The list of famous musicians who studied with Dyett is a long one but includes Gene Ammons, Julian Priester, Wilbur Ware, Dinah Washington, Johnny Griffin, Richard Davis and Nat Cole who once said, “We learnt everything there – jazz, gospel and classical music from Bach to Rachmaninov.”  In these early formative years Bennie’s acknowledged influences were Trummy Young, Lawrence Brown, J.C.Higginbotham, Tommy Dorsey and Bobby Byrne. Much later of course J.J.Johnson was added to the mix.

Thanks to a recommendation from Budd Johnson, Bennie joined Earl Hines’s band in the summer of 1942 just as James Petrillo’s AFM announced a strike preventing union members from recording for major labels. This was a great pity because that particular edition of the band boasted Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Harris, Charlie Parker, Shadow Wilson and Sarah Vaughan among its members. ‘Bird’s Diary’ by Ken Vail shows a photograph of them at an Apollo Theatre engagement on the 23rd. April 1943. Sitting next to Bennie in the section is Gus Chappell and an ‘unknown’ trombone who I think might be Cliff Smalls who joined the band at the same time as Bennie on trombone and relief pianist.

Cliff Smalls was a man of many talents. He played piano on Earl Bostic’s huge 1951 hit, Flamingo and often accompanied Green during the fifties as well as working with singers like Brook Benton, Ella Fitzgerald and ‘Smokey’ Robinson. A fine example of his work in a trio setting with Oliver Jackson and Leonard Gaskin can be heard on Caravan BB 935 recorded in 1978.

Green became very friendly with Dizzy Gillespie often visiting him at the trumpeter’s house where Dizzy would accompany him on the piano. These sessions were invaluable insights into the new harmonic and rhythmic discoveries and Bennie later described them as “Going to school”. Drafted into the military he was discharged in 1946 and later that year he recorded with Charlie Ventura for the first time on a big band date playing Neal Hefti and Stanley Baum arrangements. Ventura whose big influence was Chu Berry is a somewhat forgotten figure now but he was a virtuoso on the tenor, baritone and bass saxophones.

Green returned to Hines again until 1948 when he joined the legendary Gene Ammons who had just had a big hit with Red Top which was his wife Mildred’s nickname. Ammons was so popular in his home-town of Chicago that he was playing three gigs a night there until the union stopped him – each one climaxing with his hit. (Red Top was memorably revisited by King Pleasure and Betty Carter in 1952 – OJC CD217-2.)

In the summer of 1948 Charlie Ventura invited Bennie to join the new group he was forming to be called ‘Bop For The People’. Roy Kral was responsible for many of the arrangements that cleverly blended the often wordless vocals of Jackie Cain and Kral himself with a front-line of Conte Candoli, ‘Boots’ Mussulli, Green and Ventura. With this high profile group making regular radio broadcasts and concert appearances Bennie’s reputation as a superior soloist was now established.

Drummer Ed Shaughnessy told me that he became very friendly with the trombonist who was his room-mate when they were on the road with Ventura. One of Bennie’s many delightful characteristics when playing a blues for instance was to remain on one note –often the tonic - for a chorus or more while maintaining interest with numerous and very subtle rhythmic variations. Ed found this particularly inspiring and he used to call him ‘Mr. Rhythm Trombone’. He also told me how upset he was when the group once stopped at an Ohio diner for some hamburgers. Bennie had to remain in one of the cars because of his colour – which he did without complaining. Ed said he was a “Lovely man”.

Ventura’s group was breaking attendance records at the Royal Roost and was voted the No.1 bebop group by the readers of Down Beat and Metronome magazines. They ultimately recorded no less than 61 titles (some on obscure labels) and their brilliant but quite outrageous interpretation of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles became something of a commercial success. The leader disbanded a few months after their famous Pasadena concert in May 1949 where they shared the bill with Erroll Garner, Jimmy Witherspoon and Roy Eldridge.

Later that year on the 24th. December Green was part of a ‘Stars Of Modern Jazz’ concert at Carnegie Hall compered by Symphony Sid with Sarah Vaughan and the Charlie Parker quintet as headliners. The show was broadcast by the Voice Of America and Bennie appeared with Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Serge Chaloff, Bud Powell, Curly Russell and Max Roach playing Move, Hot House and Ornithology. As far as I know this marked the only time the trombonist worked with Serge Chaloff.

In 1950 he recorded four titles with Gene Ammons and a seven piece group featuring Sonny Stitt on baritone who sounds pretty sensational on the instrument – such a pity he didn’t record on it more often. The date included an amusing band vocal on Who Put The Sleeping Pills In Rip Van Winkle’s Coffee? proving there should always be a place for humour in jazz. Bennie has a typically smooth chorus on what was originally titled Gravy and credited to the infamous Richard Carpenter although it was actually written by Jimmy Mundy. This has been confirmed by Junior Mance who worked a lot with Ammons and was staying at Mundy’s house when he wrote and arranged Gravy for the tenor-man. It became better known as Walkin’ when Miles Davis recorded it in 1954 with Carpenter still shown as the composer. Just to add to the confusion, Miles with Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane recorded his own Sid’s Ahead in 1958 which bears a strong resemblance to Gravy aka Walkin’.

Carpenter was a former accountant and writer James Gavin has pointed out that his speciality was persuading musicians to surrender the rights to their original compositions and record royalties. Sonny Stitt who was managed by him for a time (as was Jimmy Mundy) once said to Phil Urso, “Richard Carpenter’s a motherfucker – don’t go near that guy, he’ll burn you.”

In 1952 Bennie recorded four titles with strings demonstrating elements of Jack Teagarden especially in his immaculate control of the upper register on Embraceable You and Stardust.

In 1953 he recorded an extrovert, foot-tapping date for Decca with Cecil Payne and Frank Wess where they pulled out all the stops on a simple but very effective Blow Your Horn. It has elements of rhythm and blues with one of his favourite call and response devices and became quite a juke-box hit. Two years earlier in a session with Eddie Davis, ‘Big Nick’ Nicholas, Rudy Williams and Art Blakey he had explored similar ‘down home’ material on Tenor Sax Shuffle and Sugar Syrup which probably introduced him to a new audience but wasn’t as popular as Blow Your Horn. Rudy Williams who died a year later in a fishing boat accident and was better known for his alto and tenor work has some impressive baritone outings on Flowing River and Sugar Syrup. The success of Blow Your Horn allowed Bennie to start working and recording regularly with his own quintet performing a repertoire of standards, ballads and blues which appealed to both jazz and R’n’B fans.

One man who often played with him at this time was Billy Root who I met a few years ago in Las Vegas. Billy was one of the ‘House Tenors’ at the Blue Note in Philadelphia along with John Coltrane and Buddy Savitt. The owner Jackie Fields booked visiting stars like J.J Johnson, Roy Eldridge, Miles Davis and Kenny Dorham to play with the local rhythm section and one of the tenors which was cheaper than bringing them from New York with their own groups. Bennie Green was a guest in 1953 and he invited Billy to go to New York with him to play in a big band backing Ella Fitzgerald at the Apollo Theatre. The band included Ernie Royal, Thad Jones, Earle Warren, Charlie Rouse, Gene Ammons, Sahib Shihab, John Lewis, Paul Chambers and Osie Johnson and later they moved onto the Royal Theatre, Baltimore and the Howard Theatre, Washington D.C.

There is a picture of Bennie Green, Benny Harris, Charlie Rouse, Sahib Shihab and Gerry Mulligan with Charlie Parker at the Apollo Theatre Harlem in Chan Parker’s book, ‘To Bird With Love’. She gives no date for the performance but Ken Vail confirms the booking was for a 17-piece band accompanying Parker for one week commencing August 12th.1954.

Later that month J.J.Johnson recorded his first two-trombone album with Kai Winding for Savoy Records although Bennie had apparently been Jay Jay’s first choice. He was busy so after Eddie Bert also turned him down, Jay Jay turned to Winding to form a group that had a life long after the initial recording session. 1954 was the year Green came fifth in Down Beat’s annual poll for ‘Best Trombone’ achieving 16% of the vote, his highest ever placing. The winner was Bill Harris.

By now Billy Root had left and he had this to say about his time with the quintet – “Bennie was a peach of a fellow. He had a beautiful tone on the trombone and when I first went with him we had a nice relationship. He was very straight and we played real well together. His only problem was drugs. When we were in Buffalo the police came and checked everybody’s hotel room and of course they found what they were looking for in Bennie’s room so they arrested him. His wife who was a lovely woman was also an addict. He got more and more strung out, missing rehearsals and getting nasty which was not like him at all. I couldn’t stand seeing this nice man get so messed up so I left. He had a booking in Cincinnati which was when I told him I wouldn’t go because he was destroying himself.”

The following year in 1955 he recorded ‘Bennie Green Blows His Horn’ with Charlie Rouse together with the redoubtable Cliff Smalls and Candido in the rhythm section. Rouse sounds far more energised than he sometimes did later with Monk and the CD features one of the best recorded versions of Laura with a gem of a contribution from the pianist.

He recorded ‘Walking Down’ with Eric Dixon in June 1956 but there is an unexplained gap in his activities during 1957. Writer and broadcaster Bob Porter has said, “He was off the scene” at that time which would seem to be confirmed by his next album in March 1958 titled - ‘Back On The Scene’. With Leonard Feather’s sleeve-note referring to his “Recent absence from the spotlight” the release obviously celebrated a return to the music business reuniting him with Charlie Rouse. Bennie was always an immaculate ballad performer with a beautifully controlled vibrato as he demonstrates on You’re Mine You and Melba’s Mood which is surely one of Melba Liston’s finest compositions. There is also a stunning version of Just Friends with the horns in fifths which was an unusual voicing for Bennie’s groups.

Eight months after ‘Back On The Scene’ he recorded ‘Minor Revelation’ with the excellent Chicago-born tenor-man Eddy Williams, who was a hard-swinging member of the no-nonsense Dexter Gordon school. One of the titles – Encore - has the inimitable Babs Gonzales singing his own melody based on Illinois Jacquet’s Flying Home solo. In a clear reference to Green the lyric includes the line, “I’m glad that you’re back in town”. Just as an aside, there is a mystery concerning Eddy (aka Eddie) Willams. He recorded two albums with Green and one with Johnny Griffin but after his own ‘Makin’ Out’ LP in 1961 for Prestige he disappeared as a recording artist.

In 1959 the trombonist recorded ‘Bennie Green Swings The Blues’ with Jimmy ‘Night Train’ Forrest and Sonny Clark. As the title implies the repertoire mostly consists of jazz music’s most basic harmony but with such gifted performers there is no chance of monotony. It does include though one of Bennie’s favourite standards – Pennies From heaven – which had been his feature with Charlie Ventura back in the forties.

He only made one further LP as a leader in 1961 because the sixties was a difficult decade especially for his generation of jazz musicians. Clubs like Birdland were closing and the emergence of the Beatles and Rolling Stones reflected a definite change in popular music taste. The revolutionary concepts of the jazz avant-garde movement didn’t help matters either.

Bennie was always popular in his home-town of Chicago and he continued to lead small bands there throughout the sixties as well as travelling as a single, sitting-in with house rhythm sections. He had a particularly memorable booking at McKie’s DJ Lounge on the South Side in 1961 where he was joined by James Moody, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon. (The club was owned by McKie Fitzhugh, a local disc-jockey on WVON. Just like a number of Chicago musicians he was also a DuSable High School graduate.)

He was still heard on the occasional recording and a 1964 date with Sonny Stitt as the leader was notable for an early jazz version of the lovely Our Day Will Come. It had been a big hit for Ruby And The Romantics the year before – their only one actually – and just like Ruby they perform it as a gentle bossa nova. George Benson’s appropriately titled ‘Cookbook’ CD from 1966 finds Green featured on two tracks with the giant of the baritone sax - Ronnie Cuber. Always a master of the blues his eight choruses here on that perennial jam session favourite Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid are quite outstanding.

In 1968 and ’69 he was a member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra occasionally sitting in the section with one of his original inspirations, Lawrence Brown. They were two of as  many as six trombones that Duke occasionally called on at this time the others being Buster Cooper, Chuck Connors, Benny Powell and Juilian Priester. One live date at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier - unfortunately not recorded - featured him singing and playing his speciality, I Wanna Blow. However when the band came to tour Europe towards the end of 1969 Duke was only using Brown and Connors with Norris Turney transposing third trombone parts on alto. In a recent posting to a jazz research site Dan Morgenstern speculated that Green, “Either failed to show or more likely had passport problems, maybe due to a prison record”.

In the ‘70s he moved to Las Vegas and just like a number of other jazz musicians - Carl Fontana, Carson Smith, Bill Trujillo, Jack Montrose, Billy Root and Red Rodney etc. - he found work in the hotel bands there.

After a long illness Bennie Green died of cancer on March 23rd. 1977. in San Diego.

I would like to acknowledge the help received from John Bell, Mark Gardner, Bob Weir and Val Wilmer in researching Bennie Green’s career. Val interviewed him in 1967 for Jazz Monthly and remembers him as a very gentle, gentleman.


As leader

Go Ahead And Blow! (OCM0023)
Bennie Green Blows His Horn (OJCCD-1728-2)
Walking Down (OJCCD 1752-2)
Bennie Green Mosaic Select (MS-003)
Bennie Green Swings The Blues (BMCD 1618)

As sideman

Charlie Ventura Bop For The People (Properbox 41)
Gene Ammons (PR 7823)
Sonny Stitt My Main Man (Gambit 69212)
George Benson Cookbook (Columbia CK 52977)

Here are the details about the music on the following video tribute to Bennie:

Trombonist Bennie Green with Gene Ammons and Billy Root, tenor sax, Sonny Clark, piano, Ike Isaacs, bass and Elvin Jones, drums performing "We Wanna Cook Now" from SOUL STIRRIN'.