Thursday, June 25, 2015

Victor Feldman: The Artful Dodger - A JazzProfiles Snapshot

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

For many years, Philip Elwood covered jazz, rock, blues and comedy, the entire panorama of nightlife, for the San Francisco Examiner beginning in 1965. He continued his career at The Chronicle after the two papers merged in 2000 and retired in 2002. He was an endless fount of jazz lore, an unflagging enthusiast of the music and a world-class raconteur blessed with an extraordinary memory.

During my many visits to San Francisco, I always looked forward to reading his columns on Jazz.

As a critic for half a century, Elwood pursued a lifelong love affair with the music that began in the living room of the Berkeley home of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, when he first heard a record by Louis Armstrong as a high school student.

"I wish I could go back and stand in that living room again," he said in a 2004 interview. "I'd remember exactly how it felt."

He was also one of the first people to broadcast jazz on the FM dial. His weekly radio program, "Jazz Archive," began in 1952, when very few people even owned FM radios. His show continued on Berkeley's KPFA until 1996.

"Talk about old school," said rock musician Huey Lewis, "he was a music lover. Imagine that. He actually loved the music. They don't make 'em like that anymore."

When I moved to San Francisco during the decade of the 1990’s, I had the good fortune to meet and talk about Jazz with Philip on a number of occasions. We shared a common passion for the music of pianist and vibist Victor Feldman.

It all began when I casually mentioned to Philip one night at a SF Cultural Events Committee dinner meeting at The Bankers Club which sits high atop the Bank of America Building how much I enjoyed the liner notes he had written to Victor Feldman’s Concord LP - The Artful Dodger [Concord Jazz CCD-4038].

I told him how much I appreciated his use of the word “phenomenal” in association with Victor’s musicianship and he said he had been following Feldman’s career since he first heard him on piano as a member of Shelly Manne’s Quintet appearance at The Blackhawk in September, 1959. [The music from this performance has been issued on a 5 CD set on Contemporary/Original Jazz Classics which is now a part of the Concord Music Group].

While listening to The Artful Dodger again recently, I thought that Philip’s insert notes combined with the title track from the CD which you can hear as the soundtrack to one of the concluding videos to this piece might make for an interesting JazzProfiles snapshot.

“Victor Feldman is a living refutation of most of the foolish generalizations applied to jazz musicians.

He is a brilliant multi-instrumentalist; a hot drummer in his native Britain while still a very young schoolboy; a white member of black jazz groups (such as Cannonball Adderley's); a composer of pop numbers as well as classic jazz-he wrote the "Seven Steps to Heaven" score along with Miles Davis, "Dance the Night Away" which Rhythm Heritage converted into a disco hit, etc.; he plays grand jazz on all his instruments yet is a sought-after "studio musician" and composer in the Hollywood scene; he works with skill and flair on acoustic piano as well as such keyboards as the Fender-Rhodes piano, Arp Oddessy, and Moog Synthesizer.

He has accompanied such diverse artists as Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Seals and Crofts, Peggy Lee and dozens of others (and toured with most of them) and he now plays regularly with The L.A. Express and records with the likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and almost everyone who can grab his talents to enhance their microgrooves.

And there is more, but you get the idea.

Feldman, in a word, is phenomenal; and he has been all his life, since from his 1940 stage debut to this trio recording no one has been involved in more areas of pop music than has he.

Listening to this recording the first impression is of Feldman's remarkable strength, his forcefulness. And that doesn't imply pounding or volume for its own sake. It does mean that Feldman has not only remarkable musical concepts but also the ability to play them with clarity and assertion.

His keyboard technique is above reproach and is matched by his brilliance on vibes and drums; his knowledge of rhythms and meters, and the possibilities inherent in combining melodic lines with percussion expressions, greatly expands the sounds of any group within which he works.

One can hear the Feldman touch on Steely Dan recordings, and on Freddie Hubbard's High Energy release.

Playing in a trio context, Feldman's feeling for the ensemble unit is immediately apparent...note on Limehouse Blues, the opening track here, that he begins with bold, bright piano strokes emphasizing the tune's minor-key possibilities. Playing the first chorus in 2/4, Feldman switches to 4/4 at the keyboard leaving bassist Monty Budwig for a time to hold the 2/4 meter.

But after a couple of minutes and fine piano lines Budwig almost erupts into a long solo while Feldman builds mounds of chords gradually in the background.

Limehouse, as done by Feldman, Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey, proves that an oldie can be played as a modern goodie.

Agitation begins like it is a 21 st century bebop anthem, tricky and complex. Oriental chords and pentatonic scales roam through stop-time, syncopated strains and Bailey has a field day, ultimately playing a solo that sounds like a duet with himself.

The airiness of A Walk On The Heath is not only the result of Feldman's compositions, it is a tribute to the care taken in performance and to good taste. A beautiful ballad line is supported by interesting, indeed distinctive, chord changes; the whole effort tied together by nimble-fingered Feldman.

When Isn't She Lovely leaps out at you a quick question might be "who is SHE?" to deserve such expansive keyboard praise. Domanico suggests some bright bass moments early-on, then gets a whole chorus to himself. This tune is a reminder of what makes the real pros a different sort of musician than the pretenders  — they choose numbers that they know have the ingredients for elegant interpretation. Rich chords, interesting melodic lines, rhythms that allow for variations.

Artful Dodger, like Agitation, is a Feldman tour de force special. Not just for him, of course, but for the trio. The stop-start rhythms, Feldman's unison lines (both hands), Domanico's gradual involvement with the melodic theme, Bailey's impeccable tight drumming and cymbal work — and, finally, Feldman's remarkable chorus. New themes come and go, block chording gives way to lightning-like zig-zags of right hand. Quite a number.

Moving to the electric piano, Feldman creates something fresh and fascinating out of the 44 year old standard, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. For the first half this is a piano-bass duet (it seems) held carefully together by Bailey's brush work on the snare drum. Then a delicate bossa-nova beat moves in, some minor-key variations introduce more Latin feelings and the trio is off on a new adventure. It ends, rather too shortly, with a return to the smokey theme.

St. Thomas has such a strong basic theme that a solo piano introductory statement is all that's needed before the trio's fun begins. Feldman has a ball on this one, keeping the theme through rhythm, then giving Domanico his chance. The accompaniment given Domanico by Feldman's piano punctuations and Bailey's rattling drums is superb.

There are two versions, quite different, of Haunted Ballroom. The first one is a swinging instrumental interpretation and the Haunted Ballroom performance which concludes the recording features Jack Sheldon on vocal and trumpet, Monty Budwig on bass, Feldman on Fender-Rhodes and Bailey.

Sheldon, long a trumpeter, vocalist and comic on the LA scene (especially on TV in recent years) adds just the right touch of humor to the proceedings and puts over the clever lyrics with ease and aplomb.

Milo Adamo's inside lyric references to Caravan/Music Maestro, Please, In The Mood, and many others are as neatly dispatched as Sheldon's marvelous tribute to "Satchmo" Armstrong.

At the end of this concluding Haunted Ballroom the sound gets eerie and in the background we hear a drummer featured on I Got Rhythm with a nostalgic-sounding big band.

The drummer is Victor Feldman, back in 1944 when he was known in England as "Kid Krupa," Feldman, then ten years old, was the featured soloist on that hoary old recording with Major Glenn Miller and the Army Air Force Band.

Who says that ballroom isn't haunted?”

Philip Elwood
San Francisco Examiner

The following video features the title track from The Artful Dodger.

Also from The Artful Dodger is the soundtrack to the following video tribute to drummer Colin Bailey which features him on Victor’s original - Agitation.

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