Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ruud Breuls on Jazz Trumpet

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

Unless they are talking to another musician who plays the same instrument about it, you don’t often hear explanations about why a musician picks one “axe” [musician speak for instrument] over another.

I mean, you may run across some lame magazine advertisement which claims that Ricky Rocket plays Bang-Away drums because of their “Explosiveness!,” or Super-Swift Stephens only uses custom, Broom Brushes because “they sweep away all before them” or Bronco Billy of the rock group Bandana uses Buck Firth’s titanium drums sticks exclusively as “they never break,” but rarely do you hear coherent explanations such as the following one that Ruud Breuls provides for his choice of Eclipse trumpets.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought we’d use Ruud’s comments as an example of how and why a musician chooses what instrument to play and as a vehicle for saying a few words about one of our favorite Jazz trumpeters.

Ruud seems to be everywhere on the Dutch Jazz scene these days. I first heard him as a member of The Metropole Jazz Orchestra and Big Band, but he also performs with the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, the Dutch Jazz Orchestra, the Cubop City Big Band, the Timeless Jazz Orchestra and The Beets Brothers Orchestra.

At the conclusion of Ruud’s testimonial on behalf of Eclipse trumpets, you’ll find a video with a sampling of his work in a performance by him of a Vince Mendoza arrangement of Richard Rodgers’ It Never Entered My Mind. Ruud is backed by The Metropole Orchestra with Vince Mendoza conducting.

© -Eclipse Trumpets, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“When I visited Leigh and John, I played about 20 eclipse trumpets. All of them felt nice so it was hard to find the most suitable for me. With great help from Noel Langley I picked out 2 trumpets, both with some different character. I finally decided that the MEDIUM RED was the best trumpet for me, because of the crossover situations from playing jazz-solo's to the orchestral section playing, which I do in the Metropole orchestra.

The MEDIUM RED really plays just like the description of it on the Eclipse website! You can manipulate any character you want, from edgy to warmth and depth in the sound, together with unbelievable power. I used to play my Bach for many years, but the eclipse just takes away the typical limits of the Bach, and challenges you to bring out your personal sound!! This trumpet has already given me unbelievable experiences in joy and surprise in what comes out in any situation!

The eclipse flugelhorn is the best flugelhorn I ever played on. I honesty never thought that I ever would leave my beloved Cuesnon, till Leigh came with the Eclipse. The sound has such a great stability in all registers, and the tuning is just fantastic, it stays so good above the middle G to the C, fantastic!! All my friends and colleagues say the same, they know my playing on the Cuesnon, but all of them like me to play the Eclipse, it's just better, with the same beautiful compactness of sound and personality!

I think a trumpet and flugelhorn that can make a player able to bring out a personal message, within any musical situation, is the most important thing they can have. Leigh and John make such instruments, all of them have it, all of them are technically great, and all of them have a superb finish!

Thank you Leigh and John for your great instruments!!
- Ruud Breuls

Ruud Breuls has been playing with the Metropole Orchestra for 10 years now, playing the solo jazz trumpet chair; he is also teaching jazz trumpet at the conservatory of Amsterdam. For over twenty years Ruud has been playing with the Stylus Horns, the best known horn section playing with all major Dutch artists. He is also a member of The Dutch Jazz Orchestra and The Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw. Finally, Ruud plays in two jazz quintets.”

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Modern Jazz Quartet: A Reprise

The editorial staff of JazzProfiles thought it would be fun to reprise this piece on The Modern Jazz Quartet [Milt Jackson, vibes, John Lewis, piano, Percy Heath, bass, Connie Kay, drums] so that we might add to its conclusion a video with the group performing Milt's "Bluesology" with Orchester Kurt Edelhagen on November 9, 1956, in Baden-Baden, Germany from the recently released JazzHaus CD entitled The Modern Jazz Quartet in Germany 1956-1958: The Lost Tapes [101731].

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

The MJQ, as it is universally known, is an incredible delight to listen to. John Lewis (…) the scholarly, soft-spoken, diffident music director of the group, plays what sounds like a simple style of piano. Be not deceived.

His col­league Milt Jackson reigns as the most powerful voice on vibraharp in jazz, with a bluesy style and chromatic fluency that prompted someone to dub him the Steel Bender. John accompanies him in a spare, delicate counterpoint rather than the chordal style common to bebop. Some­times John will play, say, two or three select notes behind a passage. They are the per­fect two or three notes, expressions of the man's exquisite taste and unfaltering musicality.

Percy Heath (…) is a powerfully rhythmic bassist, again one of those players who produces exactly the right notes. Connie Kay's style on drums is unlike that of anyone else: you can rec­ognize it on a record immediately. It is a rather soft style, and he has a way of set­ting up an almost lacey sound with brushes on cymbal that, for all its delicacy, swings strongly. ….

They are a remarkable ensemble with an almost telepathic rapport. The MJQ was original from the moment of its foun­dation, and it still is.”
Gene Lees

The MJQ was originally the rhythm section in Dizzy Gillespie’s post-war band…. Often quietly understated and with a conservative image, the MJQ nevertheless created thoughtful and often innovative structures, a reminder that the rhythm section has always been the engine-room of innovation in Jazz.”
-Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“…, no group went farther in establishing a valid chamber-music style for jazz. This was more than a matter of tuxedos and concert halls. The MJQ's music cap­tured an intimacy and delicacy, and a sensitivity to dynamics, that was closer in spirit to the great classical string quartets than to anything in the world of bop or swing.

But unlike their classical world counterparts, the MJQ thrived on the tension— whether conscious or subliminal—between their two lead players. The young Niet­zsche made his reputation by untangling the Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies in art—analysts of the MJQ need to do the same. The Bacchic tendency, in this case, is epitomized by Jackson, a freewheeling improviser, at his best when caught up in the heat of the moment. Lewis the Apollonian, in contrast, served as Jackson's collabo­rator, adversary, and spur, all rolled into one. He constructed elaborate musical struc­tures for Jackson to navigate, embellish, and, at times, subvert.

Such tensions between opposites often underpin the greatest art, but rarely make for stable partnerships— and, in fact, Jackson's desire to perform in less structured musical environments led to the MJQ's breakup in 1974. But a few years later, the quartet came back together, for the first of many reunion concerts, tours, and recordings.”
Ted GioiaThe History of Jazz, [p. 284, paragraphing modified]

Arduous in its own way, I’m sure it must have also been a wonderful life.

Especially the frequent trips to France and Italy where the Modern Jazz Quartet was adored.

The architectural beauty of Paris and Rome, the gorgeously appointed concert halls and outdoor amphitheaters, some located in Roman ruins, the delicious cuisines and fine wines, the frequent appearances on radio and television programs; all this and more for over forty years for four, black Jazz musicians.

Not a bad way to make a living.

It seemed that pianist John Lewis, the group’s primary composer and nominal leader, was always looking for melodies that he could set to counterpoint.

Bassist Percy Heath did his best to keep the group swinging while assuming a Stoic stance about those prospects during some of Lewis more elaborate compositions.

Drummer Connie Kay was always finding new gizmos to hit or strike; his drum kit with its suspended triangles, finger cymbals and chime trees at times took on the look of a pawn shop window.

And vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whose long-suffering countenance earned him the nickname “Bags,” often seemed embarrassed by it all while trying to insert the best in bebop and blues licks wherever possible into the MJQ’s repertoire.

“The Modern Jazz Quartet were something of a phenomenon in a world where jazz groups tend to be ephemeral creatures, often living no more than a single night, and reaching the veteran status after a half-dozen years. Not only did the MJQ clock up over four decades in action, but they achieved most of that longevity with only a single change of personnel, and that took place in 1955. The pre-history of the band can be traced to the Dizzy Gillespie big band in 1946, when pianist John Lewis, vibes player Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke formed the rhythm section, and often played as a quartet within the band, to allow the horn players to rest their lips. They recorded in 1951-2 as the Milt Jackson Quartet, and when Brown went off to concentrate on working with his then wife, singer Ella Fitzgerald, he was replaced by Percy Heath, and the MJQ was born.

The familiar line-up was completed when Connie Kay replaced Kenny Clarke in 1955, and the rest, as they say, is a long, long history, punctuated only by a lay-off from 1974-81, brought about when Jackson announced his intention to leave the band, citing the limitations on his playing freedoms, the constant touring schedules, and financial considerations, and they decided to quit rather than replace him. In later years, drummer Mickey Roker occasionally took over the drum chair from an ailing Kay, who died in 1994. Albert Heath joined briefly as his replacement, but the group finally broke up for good the following year.

In terms of hard bop, the MJQ were certainly on the periphery of the genre, with other priorities to follow. The essence of their distinctive contribution to jazz lay in tracking a middle path between the competing directions implied by hard bop and cool jazz, fiery improvisation and lucidly textured arrangements. 

The members of the band all had impeccable bop credentials, but the particular direction which they chose to cultivate extended the possibilities of their music in a more carefully structured, compositional fashion. At the same time, they offered an alternative public image for jazz to that of the familiar hipster stereotype, adopting a sober, businesslike, dignified demeanor in which, to quote Ralph J. Gleason's memo­rable phrase, they 'made promptness and professional, responsible behavior almost into a fetish'.

If Milt Jackson was their most dynamic and bop-rooted solo­ist, the overall direction of the band was down to pianist John Lewis, the shaping force behind their musical strategy. Much of the distinctive quality of their music grew out of the implicit creative tension between Jackson's driving, rhythmically-complex improvisations on the vibraphone and Lewis's classical leanings and concern with structure, form and order, which were evident in firmly jazz-based compositions as well as those which drew more directly on European models, notably of the 18th century Baroque era, his favored period. 

Rather than simply resorting to standard bop chordal accompaniments underneath Jackson's forays, Lewis also developed a more contrapuntal style of playing, pointing up the improvisation by introducing a counter-melody, as well as writing complex independent polyphonic textures for the group as an alternative to the standard melody-over-chords model. The resulting music sounded cooler and more cerebral than the denser, heated outpourings of bop.

…, Lewis was also a primary motivator in the development of the experiments which G√ľnter Schuller, his chief collaborator in that regard, called Third Stream music. The pianist's Three Little Feelings', recorded on 20 October, 1956, with Miles Davis as soloist, and available on The Birth of the Third Stream, remains a high point of the genre. That development expanded the pianist's interest in the cross-pollination of jazz idioms and improvisation with musical forms and structures based on European classical music, always a consistent feature of his music with the MJQ.

The Quartet's enduring worth, however, was firmly based on their qualities as a jazz ensemble. Their improvisational virtuosity, a group sound which was light and airy but also driving and always swinging, a finely-honed ensemble understanding, and the elegant textural and rhythmic complexity of their music all appealed to a wide spectrum of the potential jazz audience. Their success established the band as one of the most famous of all jazz groups, and a major draw in international festivals and concert halls. While many of their concerns were tangential to hard bop, it is easy to forget in the light of their 'chamber jazz’ experiments that all of the band's members - very definitely including John Lewis - were seasoned bop players, and the style was the foundation stone of their music. Although Lewis subsequently dictated much of the musical direction of the group, Jackson has always maintained that the concept was mutually agreed at the outset….” Kenny Mathieson, Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954-65 Edinburgh, Canongate, 2002, pp. 107-109]

“The standard evaluation of the MJQ has stressed the division in approach between Lewis and Jackson (…) and Jackson occasion­ally seemed to fuel that impression. In his later years, however, he reacted angrily to any suggestion of antipathy within the band, blaming the media for seeking scandal or - his own word -dissension where none existed.

He has acknowledged he did not see eye to eye with Lewis on certain matters, at the same time, he made the point that 'the MJQ has been together for forty years, and there's no way a group can be that successful for all that time if ‘we didn't get along'. Jackson also acknowledged that when all was said and done, they all did better as the MJQ than they did on their own.

If Jackson was the star soloist in the band, Lewis was undoubtedly its primary shaping force. … While Lewis was firmly rooted in jazz, he was equally well versed in classical music, an interest which went back to his childhood piano studies, and remained firmly on his agenda as a composer ….

Much of Lewis’s creative effort went into the MJQ, and he had very firm ideas on exactly what he wanted from the band. They included establishing a dignified stage presence, and setting standards of dress (usually performing in tuxedos) and conduct which ran contrary to the popular image of jazz musicians, and especially bop musicians. …. [Mathieson, Ibid, excerpts from 110-111]

Their first recording session for Prestige in 1952 set the musical pattern for the MJQ which would develop over the ensuing decade and that would sustain the group over its long lifetime.

Of the tunes recorded on this first Prestige date, the real marker of things to come was Lewis’ Vendome, the first of his many fugues.

“A fugue is a European classical form which employs complex contrapuntal imitation of a given theme or themes, technically referred to as 'subject(s)', with Bach as its great exemplar. As writers like Martin Williams and Francis Davis have pointed out, Lewis was also drawing consciously on a jazz heritage. Counterpoint was also fundamental to early jazz, and if Bach was a model, so too was the Basic band of the 1930s and 1940s, the inspiration behind what Lewis described as the MJQ's pursuit of 'an integration of ensemble playing which sounds like the spontaneous playing of ideas which were the personal expressions of each member of the band'.

Their distinctive combination of piano and vibraphone as their front line instruments was always central to the airy, refined group sound which Lewis cultivated, ….

Once launched, the MJQ quickly set about defining their particu­lar direction. Their next three sessions for Prestige were gathered on the LP released as Django, and confirmed their unique approach. The title track, a tribute to Django Reinhardt, who had died in 1953, is one of Lewis's most successful and widely admired combinations of carefully structured compositional elements with flowing improvisations.

The slow 20-bar opening introduces all of the thematic material, which is then utilized in inventive fashion in the improvisations, comprising two 32-bar choruses each from Jackson and Lewis, with a dividing 4-bar interlude which aids in emphasizing the symmetry of the piece. The intro­duction is reprised at the end, giving a very deliberately balanced structure which nonetheless sounds quite unforced and organic.

As with other of the MJQ's early works, later versions would extend and refine the music further than they achieved in this original recording, but it remained a perennial favorite in their repertoire. ….

Even at this early stage, the template had been definitively laid out, with Jackson singled out as the lead soloist, and Lewis's formal aspirations firmly established as the guiding influence in their musical direction.

The pianist's lightness of touch and his lucid, highly thematic improvisations were less spectacularly virtuoso than Jackson's, but fascinating in their own right, and at different times the rhythm section was employed both conventionally and also as individual voices within the independent polyphony which characteristically made up the musical texture.

At the same, time, Lewis also looked to develop a more controlled shape to the group's ensemble playing. As Martin Williams points out in The Jazz Tradition, 'Lewis's suggestion to the other members of the Quartet, that they attempt a more cohesive and singular emotional rise and fall in a given piece, may have begun as a piece of self-knowledge. But far from being a matter of audience pandering, it is the most legitimate sort of aesthetic refinement for Jazzmen to undertake - and, incidentally, one that Ellington has used for many years.'

If the 'classical' aspects of their music attracted most comment, both for and against, familiar standards and jazz tunes were an ever-present element at its centre. Jackson's apparently limitless ability to come up with fresh and inventive blues lines and lustrous (if occasionally over-sentimental) ballad interpretations remained equally central to the group's musical identity, and they always swung.

Improvisation also remained at the core of their music, and it is often difficult to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins. Lewis told Len Lyons in The Great Jazz Pianists: 'In all the years I've written music, there have never been any piano parts, not on anything where I've been the pianist. I invent the piano part each time. For me, improvising is the main attraction, not having to play the same thing every time.” ….

They were always impeccably prepared, rehearsing endlessly and performing new material thoroughly before recordings, with the result that, as Percy Heath told Gary Giddins, the material was 'not only rehearsed, it was refined before we got to the studio'. The MJQ raised the hackles of many jazz fans over the years, but they were a unique institution as well as a band who developed in their own singular and unshakeable fashion.

One of the things which irked those recalcitrant fans most was the idea that Milt Jackson was somehow being prevented from unleashing the full flow of his gutsy, blues-drenched playing in the context of Lewis's imposed classicism. That may have happened in some of the band's projects, but for much of the time, Milt had plenty of space and opportunity to stretch out, especially in a concert setting, and the MJQ's large roster of recordings has no shortage of prime vibraphone solos from the master.

Lewis's light, formal structures provided more sympathetic settings for Jackson than has often been allowed, and the sense of exuberant release when the vibraphonist was set loose from some passage of intricate group interplay to spin one of his dazzlingly inventive flights often gave the resulting solo even greater impact than if it had emerged from a driving bop setting. His vibrant solos provided a sharply contrasting coloration within the MJQ's palette, and he profited from Lewis's firm sense of direction and purpose, even where the settings ran contrary to his natural instincts. Jackson never really developed as an innovative leader in his own right, and generally blossomed when others were in charge and he was free just to play,….” [Mathieson, Ibid, excerpts from 113-115]

As Doug Ramsey stated in Jazz Matters:

“Creating a quartet setting that would encompass both Jackson, one of the most unrestrainedly earthy soloists in jazz, and Lewis's preoccupation with formalism presented a challenge brilliantly met. Although Lewis was to be accused of bridling Jackson, recorded evidence clearly shows that the vibraharpist functions most effec­tively in an organized context.

It is often assumed that Lewis im­posed tightly arranged structures on the quartet, but many of the "arrangements" are meldings of written material, variable patterns growing out of the members' collective experience, and spontane­ous creation.

The fact is that among listeners to the MJQ, only ex­perienced jazz musicians are likely to know what is written and what is improvised, and many of them have been fooled often enough to be amazed at what seems to be the group's extrasensory perception.” [p. 245]

Whatever distinctions one chooses to draw or preferences to express about the Modern Jazz Quartet, I’m just sorry that in the forty or so years of its existence, auditions were never held for the drum chair as I would have no doubt enjoyed the lovely European settings, all that great food and the many fine wines on offer.

But then, I suspect that each member of the group did, too.

The audio track for the following video tribute to the group was recorded at the 1987 Jazz Festival in BathEngland.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ben Webster

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

“As his playing indicates, even if you have never met the man, Ben Webster is a large, passionate jazz musician with great pride in his calling. Ben is capable of many forms of intensity, including explo­sive anger, but he is particularly prone to long bouts of extraordinary ten­derness. Ben is accordingly a superior player of ballads as this album demonstrates with especial consistency. Unlike many of the younger jazzmen who seem afraid or embarrassed to reveal their more vulnerable fantasies and memories, Webster personalizes ballads with as much virility and power as he does the stompers. Ben, moreover, has lived and traveled a good many years. He's paid a lot of dues, and is still paying. When he plays a ballad, therefore, he gives the listener the distilled experience of one of the last American frontiersmen, the itinerant jazzman.

Webster has a number of vibrant virtues as a musician and they all coalesce with most effect on ballads. There is his large, enormously warm tone. There is also his deeply flowing beat which is as pulsatingly relaxed (but not flaccid) in the slowest numbers as in the more rocking [numbers] …. A third character­istic is his thoroughly individual style-phrasing as well as sound.

There is yet a further reason for Ben Webster's mastery of ballads. Like the late Lester Young (who was also able to make even the most familiar standard suddenly new) Ben Webster has a great affection for and interest in the better singers. Several of his ideas for repertory have come from a vocalist's interpretation of a particular song. Like Young, Ben is also aware of lyrics and knows what the intent and particular mood of each song is before he begins to improvise on it….”
- Nat Hentoff

Has there ever been a more distinctive tenor saxophone sound than Ben Webster’s? One breathy buzz before a note sounds and you know immediately that it’s him.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles can’t imagine why Big Ben hasn’t featured on these pages sooner.

To rectify matters, here are some excerpts from Whitney Baillett’s essay about Ben as found in his collection of forty-six pieces on Jazz, The Sound of Surprise, [1959].

The paragraphing has been modified from the original to fit the blog format.

“The saxophone, an uneasy amalgam of the oboe, clari­net, and brass families invented a century ago by a Bel­gian named Adolphe Sax, has always seemed an unfinished instrument whose success depends wholly on the dex­terity of its users. In the most inept hands, the trumpet, say, is always recognizable, while a beginner on the saxo­phone often produces an unearthly, unidentifiable bray­ing. Even good saxophonists are apt to produce squeaks, soughs, honks, or flat, leathery tones.

Thus, the few masters of the instrument—jazz musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Harry Carney, Hilton Jefferson, and Ben Webster (classical saxophonists usually play with a self-conscious sherbetlike tone)—deserve double praise. Ben Webster, the forty-nine-year-old tenor saxo­phonist from Kansas City, has for almost twenty years played with a subtle poignancy matched only by such men as Hawkins and Johnny Hodges (from both of whom he learned a good deal), Lucky Thompson, Herschel Evans, and Don Byas.

A heavy, sedate man, with wide, boxlike shoulders, who holds his instrument stiffly in front of him, as if it were a figurehead, Webster played in various big bands before the four-year tour of duty with Duke Ellington that began in 1939. Since then, he has worked with small units and his style, which was developed dur­ing his stay with Ellington, has become increasingly puri­fied and refined. Like the work of many sensitive jazz musicians, it varies a good deal according to tempo. In a slow ballad number, Webster's tone is soft and enormous, and he is apt to start his phrases with whooshing smears that give one the impression of being suddenly picked up by a breaker and carried smoothly to shore.

Whereas Hawkins tends to reshape a ballad into endless, short, busy phrases, Webster employs long, serene figures that often (particularly in the blues, which he approaches much as he might a ballad) achieve a fluttering, keening quality— his wide vibrato frequently dissolves into echoing, ghost­like breaths—not unlike that of a cantor. His tone abruptly shrinks in middle tempos and, as if it were too bulky to carry at such a pace, becomes an oblique yet urgent and highly rhythmic whispering, like a steady breeze stirring leaves.

In fast tempos a curious thing frequently happens. He will play one clean, rolling chorus and then—whether from uneasiness, excitement, or an attempt to express the inexpressible—adopt a sharp, growling tone that, used sparingly, can be extremely effective, or, if sustained for several choruses, takes on a grumpy, monotonous sound. At his best, though, Webster creates, out of an equal mix­ture of embellishment and improvisation, loose poetic melodies that have a generous air rare in jazz, which is capable of downright meanness.”

The following tribute to Ben features him on When I Fall in Love with Mundell Lowe, guitar, Jimmy Jones, piano, Milt Hinton, bass and Dave Bailey, drums. It is from Ben’s 1958 Verve recording The Soul of Ben Webster about which Benny Green of The Observer wrote in his liner notes:

“In a way, the story of Ben Webster's career is the story of jazz music itself over the past twenty years. For reasons best known to them­selves, the jazz writers who today fall over them­selves to describe the richness of Webster's ap­proach, ignored Webster (among others) for years, concentrating all their energies on younger, more modern players. It is always a fine thing to welcome young blood and new approaches in any art form, but never at the expense of the great practitioners who have gone before.

Ben Webster's eclipse seemed so complete to one who was living three thousand miles away from the action, that in the early 1950s his name was beginning to convey nothing more than a faint feeling of nostalgia for the elegant structure of his "What Am I "Here For", "Chloe", and "Just a Settin' and a Rockin' " solos with the vintage Ellington of the early 1940s.

The very healthy tendencies of modern jazz over the last few years, the return of the earthiness which should never really be absent from the very finest jazz, the inevitable slackening of stylistic barriers which follows in the wake of any successful artistic revolutions, and the blessed ability of the musicians themselves to ignore the tidy theorisms of the analysts, has meant come­backs for Ben Webster's generation in no un­certain manner.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


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

Gordon Jack’s remembrance of saxophonist Charlie Ventura first appeared in the December 2013 edition of JazzJournal. The magazine’s website is

Gordon is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2004].

As always, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is very grateful to him for allowing us the opportunity to share his fine writing about Jazz musicians with the readers of this blog.

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

“The list of Italian-American tenor players who have made contributions to the music is a long and impressive one. A partial group would include Carmen Leggio, Joe Lovano, Don Menza, Vido Musso, Salvatore Nistico, Antonio Pestritto (Tony Pastor), Joseph Filipelli (Flip Phillips) and Charlie Venturo who changed his name to Ventura.

Charlie Ventura who was the fourth of 13 children was born in Philadelphia on December 2nd. 1916 and three of his brothers – Ben, Ernie and Pete – all became professional musicians. Initially studying guitar he taught himself to play the tenor after hearing Chu Berry with Cab Calloway’s orchestra. In 1941 he joined the house band at the Downbeat club performing there with Red Rodney, Buddy DeFranco and his good friend Bill Harris. Roy Eldridge who was playing at the famous Earle Theatre nearby sat in one night and was so impressed he recommended Charlie to Gene Krupa. He joined the band in late 1942 at the State Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut and was helped by his colleagues in the section because his sight-reading at the time was a little below par. “They treated me royally” he was to say later. He was not allocated any solos until one night at the Meadowbrook club in New Jersey, Eldridge who had become a big fan asked Krupa to let him play something. The leader was so pleased with what he heard that Ventura together with the trumpeter soon became one of the most heavily featured soloists in the band. Unfortunately in May 1943 when they were appearing at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco the leader was convicted on a drugs possession charge forcing him to disband temporarily.

Krupa was cleared on appeal and reformed in June 1944 when he again recruited Ventura together with Don Fagerquist, Joe Triscari, Teddy Napoleon and singer Buddy Stewart. The band performed forward-looking charts by Ed Finckel, George Williams and the young Gerry Mulligan who was added to the arranging team a little later.  By now his mature virtuoso approach was in full bloom - still inspired by Chu Berry - but on up tempo numbers at which he excelled there was some Ben Webster and perhaps a hint of Illinois Jacquet. He can be heard on titles like Leave Us Leap, Calling Dr. Gillespie, Blue Lou, I’ll Never Be The Same, It’s Up To You and Lover. Pretty much the star of the show he was also featured in a band within a band – Gene’s trio with Teddy Napoleon - on bravura performances of 10, Ritchie Drive (Krupa’s address in Yonkers), Wire Brush Stomp, Body And Soul and the hugely popular Dark Eyes which became Charlie’s calling-card for years. An indication of things to come with his own Bop For The People group can be heard on What’s This which has vocalists Buddy Stewart and Dave Lambert in an extended scat routine. (Properbox 1101-1104).

By now his ability had been acknowledged by the wider public when he won the 1945 Downbeat poll on tenor followed by Esquire magazine’s New Star Award a year later. His colleagues too knew just how good he was. Red Rodney told Ira Gitler in his book Swing to Bop – “Charlie Ventura was a great, great tenor player.”

In 1945 he briefly joined JATP when he appeared in Los Angeles with Howard McGhee, Joe Guy and Illinois Jacquet performing How High the Moon and Lady be Good. That was the year he made his debut as a leader with Howard McGhee producing a fine ballad reading of Ghost of a Chance for Sunset - a small local label. A few months later he was again in the studio this time for Savoy with his own quartet featuring Arnold Ross, John Levy and Specs Powell. Charlie Comes On has some exciting call and response passages with Powell, typical of his work with Gene Krupa and he also revisits his hit Dark Eyes. Jack Pot is an up tempo theme-less romp based on that old jam session favourite Stompin’ at the Savoy which finds Ventura particularly inspired (Properbox 1261-1264).

Early in 1947 he was booked for two months at the Three Deuces in New York where he took over from Georgie Auld’s sextet. He had Ralph Burns, Chubby Jackson, Dave Tough and the irrepressible Bill Harris with him who were all available because Woody Herman had just disbanded the First Herd. Jackson had left and been replaced by Bob Leininger when Jerry Newman recorded twelve titles at the club which have subsequently appeared on the HighNote label. Dave Tough makes an important contribution with his relaxed and unhurried approach to the drums, brilliantly adapting his big band approach to the demands of Ventura’s small group. Free of the need to grandstand which was sometimes necessary when he appeared with Krupa, the leader has several telling moments especially on a moving version of The Man I Love (HCD 7066).

That restraint is also apparent a few months later on a booking at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman with Kai Winding. Only four titles have been released on CD and a bonus is the performance of vocalist Buddy Stewart a colleague from the Krupa band. He won Downbeat’s award as a new star in 1948 and can be heard on Pennies From Heaven, Eleven Sixty and East of Suez (Properbox 1261-1264).The latter co-composed by Lou Stein and Ventura became something of a hit thanks to regular air-play by Symphony Sid Torin. Eleven Sixty finds Stewart singing wordlessly in unison with the horns much as Jackie Cain and Roy Kral were to do later with Charlie’s famous eight piece group. The vocalist whose sister was married to Stan Getz was destined for a very bright future but he was killed in a car accident in New Mexico in 1950. The jazz community held a benefit for his family at Birdland and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Harry Belafonte and Charlie Ventura were just a few of the stars who participated in a six hour event.

In 1948 Charlie formed a group with his brothers (Ben - baritone, Ernie – tenor, Pete - trumpet) for a series of club dates at Chicago’s Blue Note, Tootie’s Mayfair in Kansas City and Club Bengazie in Washington D.C.  Later that year he organised the small band he is most associated with – Bop For The People - with Boots Mussulli, Norman Faye (soon replaced by Conte Candoli), Bennie Green, Roy Kral, Jackie Cain, Kenny O’Brien, and the nineteen year old Ed Shaughnessy. (Jackie Cain and Shaughnessy were to make their recording debuts with Ventura). The band broke attendance records at the Royal Roost but with Green and the leader as primary soloists it was anything but a hard-core bebop group. They were both sympathetic to the new harmonic language but their rhythmic approach – and this is not a criticism – still reflected the earlier swing era. This made for a stimulating contrast with Mussulli, Candoli and Kral who took their inspiration exclusively from the Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie school both harmonically and rhythmically.

Kral did most of the writing and the clever blending of the horns with Jackie and Roy’s voices gave the ensemble its unique appeal. It lasted nearly a year recording an impressive body of work and titles like Lullaby In Rhythm, ‘Deed I Do, East Of Suez, High On An Open Mike, Birdland and Euphoria were excellent examples of early vocalese.  Incidentally, Gene Roland’s Birdland is a blues with a Honeysuckle Rose bridge - not to be confused with the well- known Joe Zawinul original of the same name. Euphoria is an intriguing contrafact of S’Wonderful.  Even novelty numbers like Barney Google, Yankee Clipper (a hymn to Joe DiMaggio) and their brilliant reconstruction of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles have a high level of musicality. Occasionally Charlie switched to the baritone and his full, rich sound reminiscent of Leo Parker is particularly impressive on If I Had You. Their May 1949 Pasadena concert where they shared the stage with Erroll Garner, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Edwards and Jimmy Witherspoon is still available on Properbox 1261-1264 and is rightly considered to be a classic. In 2006 Jazzwise asked John Surman to nominate the record that “Changed his life” as a young musician. He chose Ventura’s Pasadena concert which may surprise some members of the jazz police.

In 1948 Downbeat voted Bop For The People the number one small group in jazz. The following year they won the Orchestra World and Metronome polls with Ventura coming top in Metronome’s tenor section. This represented the pinnacle of Charlie Ventura’s career because never again was he to enjoy so much popular success. 1950 heralded the arrival of Stan Getz as a perennial Downbeat poll winner and of course the fifties saw a new school of jazz emerging on the west coast with an emphasis on cool, understated playing. Critics seemed to decide Charlie’s earthy more rhapsodic approach was no longer relevant

He did keep busy. In December 1950 he opened his own club – Ventura’s Plantation – in Lidenwald , New Jersey not far from Philadelphia. Initially he worked with a quintet featuring Conte Candoli and a little later he played there with Teddy Napoleon, Chubby Jackson and Buddy Rich who were known as The Big Four. The club survived until 1954 when Charlie’s quartet with Mary Ann McCall was booked on a nationwide tour called “A Festival Of Modern American Music” with Stan Kenton, Shorty Rogers and Art Tatum. After that he moved around the country appearing mostly as a single in Minneapolis, Atlantic City, Denver (working there with Johnny Smith), and Windsor, Connecticut.  A good example of his mid- fifties work can be found on High On An Open Mike which has some of his specialities like Euphoria, East Of Suez and Dark Eyes together with two versions of Bernie’s Tune and a poignant alto statement on Cry Me A River (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 314). Peter Ind worked with him at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto and in a JJI interview (June 1996) he told me,” Charlie was easy-going and very pleasant. Like most of the guys from that earlier generation he was less demanding and very appreciative.”

In the late fifties Ventura moved to Las Vegas often appearing at the Tropicana and the Thunderbird Lounge with Carl Fontana. One night in 1958 at the Copa Room at the Sands he fell off the stage, breaking five ribs. Charlie, together with Fontana and Margaret Whiting had been booked for a Stars Of Jazz broadcast in Los Angeles so Vido Musso took his place. I believe he also worked in Vegas with Jackie Gleason but I have been unable to confirm this although they often recorded together. In the sixties he was usually to be found at the Metropole in NYC with Gene Krupa. Kenny Berger who heard him there told me, “I used to love it when he’d play Body And Soul on the bass saxophone… he sounded great.” From 1972 to 1975 he worked as a disc-jockey on a radio station in Camden New Jersey and on one notable occasion in 1974 he performed with Teddy Wilson at Michael’s Pub in NYC. Health difficulties and severe dental problems began to restrict his performances until he moved eventually to Florida to live with his brother Ben where he earned a living repairing instruments.

Stan Levey who worked with him at the Spotlight club in the forties told me in a JJI interview (September 1999) “Charlie was straight down the middle and a nice guy but over the years he got taken for a ride and ended up broke.” The last word though on this unsung giant of the tenor who died on the 17th. January 1992 should come from Conte Candoli who told me, “Charlie Ventura was one of the greatest sax players who ever lived. He was very under-rated but not by musicians who knew how great he was.””

The following video tribute features Charlie and his group with vocalists Jackie Cain and Roy Kral performing For Boppers Only.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ark Ovrutski, Treme’ and New Orleans

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

“… We want to hear propulsion, originality, coherence, imagination and excitement in jazz. We want sounds that beguile, provoke, amuse and sooth. We want those sounds to provide insights into those who make them, who we can then identify as a lot like us. That's why we like their music: it resonates with what we'd do, if we but could.”
- Howard Mandel, Jazz author and journalist

One of the [sadly] most memorable highlights in recent television viewing was Treme’, a drama set in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina.

Airing on HBO beginning in 2010, Treme’ primarily follows musicians and residents as they try to put their lives back together in the aftermath of the storm.

Hurricane Katrina was the deadliest and most destructive Atlantic tropical cyclone of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. It was the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes, in the history of the United States with winds that reached upwards of 180 mph. The storm caused over 1,800 casualties and was particularly devastating in the New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward which even today has “… grasses that grow taller than people and street after street which are scarred by empty decaying houses; the lives that once played out inside their walls hardly imaginable now.”

New Orleans has long been credited as the birthplace of Jazz and strange as it may seem, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles was reminded of the fact with the recent arrival of Ukrainian-born bassist Ark Ovrutski’s latest CD 44:30 on Zoho Records [ZIM 201402; the disc gets its title from the total playing time on the CD].

Why with a new CD led by a bassist who was born in Kiev, studied at the Russian Academy of Music, ran a Jazz club in Krakow, Poland and attended Berklee College of Music seminars in Italy before immigrating to New York in 2005 create reminiscences of New Orleans?

All one has to do to answer this question is listen to the opening track on 44:30 which appropriately enough is entitled – New Orleans – which Howard Mandel describes in his insert as “… an upbeat ode to the Crescent City universally honored as the cradle to Jazz.” He goes on to say: “Pianist David Berkman and drummer Ulysses Owens set the pace, the Ark enters to deepen the street parade pocket. Michael Thomas, playing soprano sax, and trombonist Michael Dease trade phrases up ‘til a chorus of joint improvisation, and converge on a hip bluesy line. Appropriately for a tune celebrating New Orleans’ rhythms, Owens’ drum solo is stellar.”

And there you have it in a nutshell: 44:30 proves that irrespective of where you are born and no matter what generation your age places you in, New Orleans cradles you into its musical traditions, primary among which is Jazz.

Ark Ovrutski, Michael Thomas, Michael Dease, David Berkman and Ulysses Owens are splendidly capable and talented musicians who have a lot to say and say it well. 44:30 is one of those joyous surprises that reaffirms why you fell in love with Jazz in the first place. Its exciting music and it will move you emotionally and rhythmically because it is based on the primary ingredient of Jazz – it swings.

Chris DiGirolamo of TwofortheShow Media sent along all of Howard Mandel’s insert notes as a media release and since I couldn’t improve on them I’d thought I’d share them with you.

Howard Mandel is the author of Future Jazz and Miles Ornette Cecil-Jazz Beyond Jazz, writes for many publications, reports for National Public Radio, blogs at and is president of the Jazz Journalists Association.

© -Howard Mandel, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Wherever in the world or in whatever disposition a jazz musician starts their professional journey, he or she must eventually come to grips with creating a personal approach based on technique, imagination and feeling. Ukrainian emigre composer and bassist Ark Ovrutski likes to say that since age 20 he has been an "international homeless traveler." With 44:33, his third album as a leader, Ark has arrived.

A program of bright melodies, tight ensemble collaboration, individualized solos and firm underlying swing, 44:33  -titled for its running time — is an expression of accomplishment and direction from a coterie of players, instigated by a well informed, thoroughly engaged leader. Multi-reedist Michael Thomas, trombonist Michael Dease, pianist David Berkman and drummer Ulysses Owens are all players from the top echelon of New York's abundance of talented jazzers. Ark is pivotal at the band's core, generating material as well as holding everything together.

Born in Kiev, Ark was playing violin at age 8 — but not out of love of classical music. Influenced by his father who admired Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, he remembers being "always excited by swing." Today Ark regards Charles Mingus as his hero, citing Mingus' goal of advancing the art of a composer-bassist towards a melding of classical and jazz traditions. "I'm working on the challenge of being a bassist - not just a prominent soloist," Ark explains. "I think the future requires bassists to have both classical-level technique and a jazz player's ability to lead and improvise."

Ark has pursued both paths of experience. He attended and graduated with a degree from the Russian Academy of Music, where he roomed with trumpeter Alex Sipiagan (frequently featured today in the Mingus Big Band) and met tenor sax star Igor Butman. Ark visited the U.S. in the early '90s, then got a job as house band mainstay and artistic director for a jazz club in Krakow, Poland, where he remained for three years. He "travelled like crazy" all through Europe, enjoying extended time in Spain and Italy, before returning to Moscow to freelance and produce his first recording (not available in the West).

In 2003 Ark attended Berklee College of Music's summer clinics in Italy. Told that to advance his career, he should be in America, he applied for and received a scholarship to New York City's Drummers Collective, in which he enrolled in 2005. He was soon gigging in Harlem clubs such as the Lenox Lounge, Minton's and St. Nicholas Pub with the circle of musicians including vocalist Gregory Porter. He was also mentored by drummer Duduka Da Fonseca, with whom he has recorded and toured, and who is prominent on Ark's 2011 self-released album Sounds of Brazil.

In 2006 Ark began work on his masters’ degree in music at Rutgers University in New Jersey, studying with bassist Mike Richmond, drummer Victor Lewis and pianist Stanley Cowell, among others. Veteran bassist Bob Cranshaw advised him to go for a doctorate, which he's done at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Taking the most ambitious compositions of Charles Mingus as his thesis project, Ark has just completed his degree requirements and at this writing is about to receive his Ph.D.

Such credentials are admirable, but jazz musicians are only as good as their music, and that's where Ark & company shines. 44:33 opens with New Orleans, an upbeat ode to the Crescent City universally honored as the cradle of jazz. Pianist Berkman and drummer Owens set the pace, then Ark enters to deepen the street parade pocket. Thomas, playing soprano, and trombonist Dease trade phrases up 'til a chorus of joint improvisation, and converge on a hip, bluesy line. Appropriately for a tune celebrating New Orleans' rhythms, Owens' solo is stellar.

Waltz follows, demonstrating variety and consistency with pretty airiness. Ark's intro seems to pulse with the funky insistence of a CTI-era bass part a la Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay," however the quintet unfolds this composition in a different mode entirely. Dease, who's worked with Ark in such Manhattan venues as Dizzy's Club and NuBar since 2009, projects warmth through his muted sound; Thomas takes a silvery turn on alto sax. Ark's spotlight passage has a confident throb that connects tunefully to his intro - which he notes "sounds like it's in 5/4, but is actually in 3/4 (waltz time)." The track's ending is especially mellow.

Up is, of course, quick, with Ark's walk sprightly, not rushed. There's something of John Coltrane's "Impressions" in Up - maybe the sax/'bone harmonization that nods to that classic's blend of Coltrane's and Eric Dolphy's inimitable voices. Berkman sparkles, as he does throughout this album whether soloing or underscoring. Ark's break is dark and deft; he goes for an earthy, springy sound.

Baby's Vibe, which subtly references "Infant Eyes" by Wayne Shorter (another of Ark's musical models) has a tender vibe, unusual for a trombone-led number. Thomas's alto matches Dease's 'bone, their parts twining like vine.

Medium, launched by a drum roll and trilling horns, is also companionable. The band makes its easy swing seem easy to achieve, but don't take its mastery for granted. Thomas bespeaks post-bop on his soprano sax, which is also unusual; Ark, in his solo, dances on his strings. The group's cool modesty is becoming.

The exacting melody Milestones - the "Milestones" written by John Lewis for Miles Davis's 1947 debut with Charlie Parker, not the "Milestones" Davis himself wrote for his '58 recording with the musicians who cut Kind of Blue - is 44:33's sole track not written by Ark. Dease's arrangement is beautifully interpreted - I especially like the connection between the horns and Berkman's accompaniment. Ark's solo chorus is flavored by Mingus-like urgency, yet pleasure emanates from the music's totality more than any particulars, as he binds the disparate instruments into a cohesive whole.

The finale Path Train was inspired by the commute to Manhattan Ark made daily in 2005, when living in Jersey City. Benito Gonzalez plays Rhodes electric piano, getting the big, glistening tone that Joe Zawinul promoted when he introduced this gear on Cannonball Adderley's 1966 hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." Ark's groove is just right; the quintet aces the concluding stop-time breaks as if the task were as natural as breathing, the better to frame Owens.

"As a composer, I'm still learning," says Ark. "Trying to get to the truth with music is hard. Michael Dease says I use a lot of 'slash chords' — meaning one triad on top of another in layers, for polytonal and polychordal purposes, the way composer Darius Milhaud explored. But I try not to forget about the blues scale and feel. I like Wayne Shorter's example: always modern, always jazz. Let's not forget we're playing jazz!"

That's an important point for listeners as well as musicians. We want to hear propulsion, originality, coherence, imagination and excitement in jazz. We want sounds that beguile, provoke, amuse and sooth. We want those sounds to provide insights into those who make them, who we can then identify as a lot like us. That's why we like their music: it resonates with what we'd do, if we but could.

Ark Ovrutski and his cohorts can, and do. So a "homeless international traveler" and his colleagues turn from being strangers into something more like neighbors, better than acquaintances — friends. Quite a feat that they pull off in 44:33. - Howard Mandel”

For more information about Ark, please visit his website at

The following video features Ark and the quintet on New Orleans from 44:30 as set to images of the city and poster art from the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals.

Monday, March 24, 2014


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

Shortly after the recent passing of saxophonist and founding Supersax member, Med Flory, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles was graciously reminded by a close friend that a recounting of Dave Pell’s achievements with Prez Conference might be in order.

Like Med, Dave is also a saxophonist and a bandleader, one who has led his own octet for many years, and he is also the founder of a singular group of saxophonists whom he named – Prez Conference.

The friendship between Dave Pell and Med Flory dates back to the West Coast Jazz scene of the 1950s and like Med, who had a parallel career in acting, Dave is a multi-talented guy having composed and arranged music for his own groups and also served as a record producer and a session photographer.

Whereas Supersax arranged a full saxophone section [2 altos, 3 tenors and 1 baritone sax] in unison and in harmony to replicate the solos of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, Dave Pell’s Prez Conference used 3 tenors and one baritone sax to give a new sonority to the solos of the legendary tenor saxophonist, Lester Young [Billie Holiday nicknamed him “The President” and the hipsters renamed him “Prez”].

In creating the music for Prez Conference, Dave enlisted the help of composer-arranger Bill Holman, a tenor saxophonist who is also a contemporary of Med Flory and, of course, the leader for many years of his own big band which is based in Los Angeles, CA.

As the always informative Jazz writer Leonard Feather explained:

“There are certain individuals in jazz history who, no matter what their other credits, will always be best known through one particular association, even if it was relatively brief. Just as Ben Webster never escaped the billing "formerly with Duke Ellington" (though he work­ed with the band for a total of barely four years), so was Lester Young's association with Count Basie (1936-40, occasional reunions in 1943-4 and thereafter until Prez died in 1959) the one fact of his life that would always be remembered by fans and historians.”

And in a review of a Prez Conference performance at Carmello’s in Sherman Oaks, CA that appeared in The Los Angeles Times 1984, Feather gave more background about the group and its dynamics:

“The group known as Prez Conference, which per­formed Wednesday night at
Carmelo's, was organized in 1978 by the tenor saxophonist Dave Pell. Although only two of the original members remain—Pell and Bob Cooper—the concept has proved more durable than the personnel.

Pell wanted to do with solos transcribed from records by Lester (Prez) Young what Supersax had done with Charlie Parker solos: harmonize them for a saxophone section, effectively making valid composition out of timeless Im­provisation. Bill Holman deserves credit for most of the success of this group. He's responsible for fanning out Young's solos into arrange­ments for three tenor saxes and a baritone.

The cool, mellow blend of the reed team makes for an attractive ensemble sound. Bob Hardaway was the third tenor and John Lowe subbed for Bob Efford on baritone. The repertoire has remained al­most unchanged. Lester Young's vehicles were mostly blues or sim­ple 32-bar tunes "I Never Knew,” “Just You, Just Me," and the classic "Lester Leaps In.”

Given Young's close association with Count Basie, it was appropriate to pick Nat Pierce, once the Count's alter ego, for the piano chair. Frank Capp's drums and the eloquent bass of Chuck Berghofer rounded out the rhythm section, with Harry "Sweet" Edison or Bill Berry's trumpet added for occasional brass contrast.”

Here’s a taste of the Prez Conference in action on Bill Holman’s arrangement of I Never Knew which features Dave Pell, lead tenor saxophone, Bob Hardaway and Bob Cooper, tenor saxophone, Bob Efford, baritone saxophone, Al Hendrickson, guitar, Nat Pierce, piano, Monty Budwig, bass and Frankie Capp, drums.