Friday, December 1, 2017

Buddy DeFranco and Dave McKenna: Two for the Recording Studio

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

Along with the trumpet, the clarinet was the preeminent instrument of the Swing Era when some of the era's most popular bands were led by the likes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman.

While the trumpet persisted as a featured instrument in the smaller combos that brought Bebop and Modern Jazz to the forefront in the years following the end of the Second World War, the clarinet seemed to recede into Jazz History.

The exceptional playing of Buddy DeFranco brought the devilishly-difficult-to-play clarinet into the world of Bebop and beyond with a degree of skill rarely rivaled by other modern, Jazz instrumentalists.

Each and every time I return to Buddy DeFranco's music, I shake my head in amazement at his superb technique and consistently innovative improvisation. 

Although rarely recognized as such, Buddy's achievements rival those of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the two principal originators of Bebop. His skill and ideas never fail to impress me, whatever the setting.

“Nobody has seriously challenged DeFranco's status as the greatest post-swing clarinetist, although the instrument's desertion by reed players has tended to disenfranchise its few exponents (and Tony Scott might have a say in the argument too). DeFranco's incredibly smooth phrasing and seemingly effortless command are unfailingly impressive on all his records. But the challenge of translating this virtuosity into a relevant post-bop environment hasn't been easy, and he has relatively few records to account for literally decades of fine work….”

Dave McKenna hulks over the keyboard…. He is one of the most dominant mainstream players on the scene, with an immense reach and an extraordinary two-handed style which distributes theme statements across the width of the piano.

McKenna is that rare phenomenon, a pianist who actually sounds better on his own. Though he is sensitive and responsive in group playing … he has quite enough to say on his own account not to need anyone else to hold his jacket.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

In the 100+ years that Jazz has been in existence, it has been expressed in any number of instrumental combinations: combos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, octets, tentets and big bands.

It almost seems that as the popularity, and with it, the fortunes of the music, waned, the smaller the groupings became.

The big bands of the Swing Era were replaced by combos after WW II and these would soon be reduced to piano-bass-drum trios. Sometimes locally-based trios served as pick-up rhythm sections for horn players who traveled the Jazz club circuit of major cities as guest soloists. It was cheaper for them to get booked into local clubs this way.  Star alto/tenor saxophonist Sonny Stitt made his living this way for many years.

Throughout its history, Jazz has had a long association with night clubs many of whose owners were looking to pedal booze with the music serving as a convenient backdrop.

Jazz nightspots like The Lighthouse and Shelly’s Manne Hole in southern California, The Blackhawk in San Francisco, the Jazz Showcase in Chicago and Birdland and The Village Vanguard, all of which featured the music as well as sold libations, have become few and far between since their heyday from 1945-65.

Not that these smoke-filled rooms were ever the best environment for the music let alone the musicians, but at least they gave Jazz fans venues in which to hear the music performed on a regular basis.

Duos have always been around the Jazz scene, but they were generally formed by a pianist or a guitarist backed by a bass player, in other words, an instrument to carry the melody while the other played rhythm to keep the swinging sense of metronomic time which is a key feature of Jazz.

This low-key approach was generally favored by some of the smaller rooms that offered Jazz and was usually easy on the wallet of the club’s owner. Adding horns and drums to such an environment would overpower the patrons.

Not surprisingly, with the passing of time and the diminishing of its fans base, Jazz solo piano gigs also became ensconced in some clubs. Occasionally, a guitarist, or a trumpet player with a mute or even a saxophonist who could keep the volume down might drop by to sit-in with these solo pianists.

For many years, one of the best pianists in Jazz was a frequent performer as a solo pianist in clubs in the greater Boston area with occasional swings down to Newport, R.I. and to Florida for “the season.”

His name was Dave McKenna [1930-2008] and he always maintained that, “[ … because of his fondness for staying close to the melody], I’m not really a bona fide jazz guy”. Instead, he claimed, “I’m just a saloon piano player.” Regulars at the Boston’s Copley Plaza Bar (now the Oak Room), where Dave often performed, rebuffed this modest remark by telling McKenna that he was ‘just a saloon player’ like Billie Holiday was ‘just a saloon singer.’” 

Thanks to the late Carl Jefferson’s patronage, many lesser known, but not necessarily less-skillful, solo pianists would have their work showcased on his Concord Records Maybeck Recital Hall [Berkeley, CA] series which was issued in the 1980s and 1990s.

Concord also put out recordings with some of these pianists represented on the Maybeck series paired with woodwind and reed players such as Alan Broadbent and Gary Foster, Kenny Werner and Chris Potter, and my favorite, Dave McKenna and Buddy DeFranco.

Richard Cook and Brian Morton of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed. had this to say about the DeFranco-McKenna collaboration:

Concord threw a line to players of DeFranco's sensibilities. The one to get … is the magisterial encounter with Dave McKenna, still as fiercely full-blooded as ever at the keyboard, and musician enough to have DeFranco working at his top level. 'Poor Butterfly', 'The Song Is You' and 'Invitation' are worth the admission price, and there are seven others.”

Here’s what Dr. Herb Wong had to say about the DeFranco-McKenna Jazz alliance in his insert notes to Dave McKenna and Buddy deFranco: You Must Believe in Swing [Concord CCD-4756-2].

© -Dr. Herb Wong, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Though rare up until some 25 years ago, duos now occupy a pivotal niche in jazz. Their interest stretches beyond mere curiosity; two-instrument bands face the challenge of creating musical moments germane to their special environment which neither solo musicians nor conventional small combos can furnish.

Most duos highlight the beauty of musicians of similar styles and schools of thought playing with a preferred consonant sound. On the surface, therefore, the pairing of Dave McKenna and Buddy DeFranco might seem unlikely. "At first thought, Dave and Buddy may not be a perfect fit, since they come from somewhat different directions," recalls Dr. Dave Seiler, Director of the University of New Hampshire Jazz Band. "But we watched them rehearse - the way they communicated was incredible!"

The background trail leading to this unusual pairing is of interest. Born in the vision of one Joe Stellmach, a devout fan and good friend of both McKenna and DeFranco, this recording was inspired by the spectacular match-ups of DeFranco with super piano icons Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson back in the 1950s. The prospect of DeFranco's thorough mastery of the instrument (with his modern harmonic vocabulary and improvisational skills) brought together with the extraordinary pianism of McKenna (one of the most triumphant post-Tatum pianists) was Stellmach's dream.

"I was inspired to bring Dave and Buddy together - specifically Dave as the third prodigious jazz pianist to be coupled with Buddy," said Stellmach, who was the catalyst in gaining the enthusiasm of Concord Jazz to make this recording. Less than a week after the teaming was agreed to, a debut concert was organized by local piano great Tom Gallant and the aformentioned Dr. Seiler for October 9, 1996 at Portsmouth, New Hampshire as part of the Harry W. Jones, Jr. Jazz Concert. Prior to this venue, McKenna and DeFranco hadn't really played together other than brief jams at parties. A week later, they were in New York recording this CD.

DeFranco's esteem for McKenna is markedly illustrated by this anecdote: "Two summer ago in New England, a friend of Dave's asked me if I'd like to go hear him play solo in a hotel by the coast. I had a plane to catch later on, so I decided to catch one set and then fly home. I wound up listening to the entire three sets."

McKenna is an anomaly in the world of jazz pianists; his two-handed style is so rhythmically powerful that he's essentially self-sufficient. Ace trombonist Carl Fontana, who has played with McKenna many times, simply said, "Dave is a band. You don't really need one when he's around!" Pianist Dick Hyman agrees, "He's his own rhythm section. The left hand plays a 4/4 bass line, the right hand plays the melody, and there's that occasional 'strum' in between - like three hands." Check his right hand off-beat single notes, and unpredictable spaces promoting accents that create ear-tugging reactions. Reminiscent of Tatum, McKenna's arpeggios at times seem like they're 50 feet long.

"Dave plays a different way - an orchestral way," DeFranco elaborates. "Of course, Errol Garner and Oscar Peterson had it too, but Dave has a bass line going on all the time. He has the orchestral melodic part, and those exciting chord progressions, but somewhere he sneaks in what might be 'brass figures,' and it's fascinating to wonder how he gets them in. He inserts these figures while everything else is going on."

McKenna explains it quite simply: "I like to play a long line - like a horn player's single notes, which also equate to single notes on a bass. Well, sometimes I'll pause - take a breather in that line, and on occasion just throw in a chord or two." His predilection for single note lines suggests that he has listened a great deal more to horn players than he has to pianists.

Buddy DeFranco is the titan of the modern jazz clarinet who had taken his instrument to the peak of mastery decades ago and has maintained this preeminence internationally since the forties. He has pushed his digital precision to its technical boundaries, and early on merged his blazing, flawless execution with the vital force of Charlie Parker's harmonic approach. With his devastating speed and gorgeous, fluid tone, he improvises with emotional candor and blows nuclear ideas that explode with surprising hues and shapes.

An accomplished clarinetist himself, Seiler says simply "Buddy is a clarinet player's clarinet player." …

Speaking about DeFranco, McKenna said firmly, "It was a real pleasure working with him. Man, he's got it all! In a duo you have to be busy all the time. It's one of the hardest things to do, but with a great horn player like Buddy - that's something else! I really enjoy his musicality."

In a duo, each musician is truly half of what happens. It's a matter of the freedom to express and letting things happen with complete confidence — a process which shows the music is worthy of risk. There's an enchanting aura about the numeral "two". This duo reflects that mystifying magnificence. There is something pristine about combining a piano note and a clarinet note. Dave McKenna and Buddy DeFranco share in tandem a striking set of properties of integrity and musical character only mature creative players experience. Their sophisticated knowledge and simpatico are self-evident.

DeFranco said it well: "If it doesn't swing, it isn't happening!"

You can savor the duo delight that is Dave McKenna and Buddy DeFranco in the following video tribute which features their performance of Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now. 

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