Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Jazz Flashes Podcast: Drummer and Jazz Journalist Steven Cerra

Steven Cerra (Photo: Melody Cerra)
Any jazz fan who follows blogs currently published about the genre is surely acquainted with Steven Cerra's Jazz Profiles and the very informative, in-depth articles about jazz musicians that he offers there. The length and thoroughness of the posts, some of which comprise in excess of 100 pages of written text, make this blog unique and one of the most interesting on the internet. Rather than giving an overview of a style or of the history of jazz, Mr. Cerra is interested in focusing on individual performers, many of whom are rather obscure and not written about very often. This is a feature that has always attracted me to his blog, and for a while I've been wanting to interview him for an episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast. That came together a couple of months ago, when he joined me for a chat from his home in Southern California, and you may hear the episode at the end of this brief post. As a drummer, Mr. Cerra was there during the heyday of West Coast jazz, in the 1950s and '60s, and throughout our conversation he reminisces about the West Coast scene and speaks fondly of musicians he knew personally, such as vibraphonist-pianist Victor Feldman or ace drummer Shelly Manne. He also elaborates on the rationale for the writing of his blog posts and speaks passionately about the past, the present, and the future of jazz. It was a pleasure for me to have Mr. Cerra as a guest on the podcast, and it's my hope that all readers of Jazz Flashes will find this episode interesting and engaging.



Monday, July 23, 2018

New Releases: Woody Shaw Live in Tokyo, 1981

I would like to offer my gratitude to my good friend Guy Jones for alerting me to the recent release of this excellent Woody Shaw album.

The European label Elemental Music describes itself as "a new label that specializes in releasing newly discovered archival or out-of-print jazz recordings," and one of its latest issues is Tokyo '81, an outstanding concert by trumpeter Woody Shaw in Japan that had lain dormant in the vaults for several decades. Shaw, who on this occasion plays both trumpet and flugelhorn, appears in a quintet setting alongside a stellar lineup: Steve Turre on trombone and percussion, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Stafford James on bass, and Tony Reedus on drums. Though the tapes are almost forty years old, the sound is good, and the repertoire is magnificent and extremely accessible, consisting of four Shaw originals, one composition by Miller, and a tour-de-force interpretation of Thelonious Monk's well-known standard "'Round Midnight."

The opening track, an extended reading of Shaw's "Rosewood," sets the pace for the rest of the concert: the listener will be treated to Shaw's inimitable style of jazz, with lengthy versions of tunes that will afford plenty of opportunities for everyone involved to shine. This is particularly evident in the 15-minute "'Round Midnight," one of the true gems of the album, which brings to the fore the musical richness and genius of the Monk standard, which has been played so often that it's seemingly impossible to make it sound fresh and different. Yet the quintet achieves just that, mixing soft, intimate passages with others that pick up the tempo and the energy, and featuring extremely inventive solos by Shaw, Miller, and Turre. On "Apex," written by Miller, the piano is understandably more prominent, and the melody inspires Turre and Shaw to do some swift, highly imaginative soloing.

Pianist Mulgrew Miller.
The ballad "From Moment to Moment" slows down the proceedings, with Shaw playing in a melancholy, yet passionate way, ably supported by the rhythm section, and Turre exploring the lower registers of the trombone in a short but memorable solo. "Song of Songs" is arguably the most experimental of the six tunes, a fresh reading of the title track of Shaw's 1972 album that opens with a dissonant dialogue between the trumpet and the piano with Reedus playing the cymbals in the background and that clocks in at over 16 minutes of intensely expressive playing. Finally, "Theme for Maxine" is no more than a closing vamp that allows the leader to introduce the band and put an end to an excellent concert. We congratulate Elemental Music on the release of this indispensable live appearance by Shaw that would have gone otherwise unnoticed and hope that there will be many more similar issues from this label in the near future.

Trombonist Steve Turre.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Guy Jones Interviews Jim Tomlinson in Stockholm, Part I

Jim Tomlinson and Stacey Kent
I've recently heard that my good friend Guy Jones, founder of the Stockholm-based jazz reissue label Fog Arts and occasional guest on the Jazz Flashes Podcast, has had the chance to interview the great British saxophonist and flutist Jim Tomlinson. The interview took place back in May 2018 in the lobby of the Scandic Grand hotel in the Swedish capital, which Tomlinson visited with his wife, American singer Stacey Kent, to play a few dates and give a talk on the collaboration between the two of them and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.

Fog Arts founder and manager Guy Jones

Tomlinson is a versatile and engaging player who began his performing and recording career in the 1980s and who is well known via his albums as a leader, as well as his frequent collaborations with Kent on her critically acclaimed records. This 88-minute conversation offers a great deal of insight into the British reedman's art, covering all sorts of topics related to Tomlinson's life and illustrious musical career. The first part of the interview has been made available as a podcast on SoundCloud and on the Fog Arts YouTube channel, and readers of Jazz Flashes may access it at the end of this post. A second part of the conversation is forthcoming, and we're eagerly awaiting it.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jazz Flashes Podcast: Chris Byars on His New CD, New York City Jazz

The sound of Chris Byars's band is forcibly changing due to the fact that his guitarist, Pasquale Grasso, hitherto one of the anchors of Byars's approach to jazz, has signed an exclusive recording contract of his own and is thus leaving the group. The New York-based saxophonist adheres to the motto that one shouldn't try to replace what's irreplaceable, and so he will be modifying the sound of his combo following the guitarist's departure. That's one of the many reasons why Byars's latest CD release, New York City Jazz (SteepleChase, 2018) is a must—because it captures the sound of this particular sextet for what may well be the last time.


Cut in December 2016, the album finds Byars playing alto sax and flute in the comfortable company of Grasso on guitar, John Mosca on trombone, Stefano Doglioni on bass clarinet, Ari Roland on bass, and Stefan Schatz on drums. The program is bookended by two rather obscure compositions by Gigi Gryce ("Transfiguration" and "B.G.'s Holiday") and includes a beautiful ballad by Freddie Redd ("Dawn in the City"), two names that have influenced Byars greatly. "The General's Song" is a curiosity that the saxophonist learned from Saudi Arabian musician Tarek Abdel-Hakim during the course of one of his many trips overseas as a jazz ambassador for the U.S. State Department. The rest of the tracks are all Byars originals, and they are prime examples of his talent as a composer, as well as of the variety and depth of his influences: from the slow, intimate "Bridge of Locks," a melody that borders on the tone poem, to the jumpy "Quick Turnaround" and "Hot Dog." "Chess" is another bouncy number that references Byars's son's mastery of that ages-old game, and the Midde Eastern-sounding "No Message," one of the highlights of the set, is actually inspired on ancient traditional tune from Bahrain. On the whole, this new album by Byars is a testament to the rich music of this world-traveling saxophonist, as well as to the consummate musicianship of his magnificent band, with plenty of solos from everyone involved and a great deal of excellent bowed bass from Roland. A definite winner that serious jazz fans should seek out.




We recently caught Byars at his NYC apartment right before a recording session, and we had the chance to chat with him for about an hour for a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast. Throughout the conversation we addressed the album, the impending changes in his band, and the impact that this will have on the sound of the tracks for a forthcoming new CD that we are impatiently awaiting. Hoping that the episode will be of interest to Jazz Flashes readers, it's available in its entirety here below.



Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Jazz Flashes Podcast: Interview with John Radanovich on Cuban Singer Benny More

In his native Cuba, vocalist Benny More (whose first name was sometimes spelled as "Beny" on record covers and whose nickname was "El Barbaro del Ritmo," i.e. "The Wildman of Rhythm") has transcended his status as a popular singer to become an iconic figure, someone who is still spoken of with reverence many decades after his untimely death in 1963. And there's good reason for that, judging by the handful of phenomenal recordings he made in the 1950s and by the few videos of live performances that have survived, many of which may be enjoyed on YouTube. Though he came from a humble background and had no formal musical training, he had a fantastic ear for music and composed unforgettable melodies such as "Que Bueno Baila Usted" or "Santa Isabel de las Lajas," among many others that have become standards of Cuban music. More was comfortable in very different settings: he drew heavily on his African roots for his rhythm tunes, got a great deal of inspiration from American big bands, and was a master of the more romantic bolero. Moreover, on stage he was quite the showman, a fiery performer who always knew how to get the best out of his musicians and who would become one of Havana's most exciting performers at a very exciting time in Cuban music--the late 1940s and the 1950s. When More sings, the listener simply has to stop and listen intently, almost mesmerized by his voice and irresistible charisma.



John Radanovich
Florida-based music critic John Radanovich, who over the decades has written for prestigious publications such as Off-Beat and Downbeat, became enthralled by More's music and personality to such an extent that he spent 15 years researching his life, including visits to Cuba at a time when it wasn't as easy for Americans to have access to the island as it may be today. The result is the only English-language biography of More, Wildman of Rhythm: The Life and Music of Benny More (University Press of Florida, 2009), a carefully researched and highly enjoyable book that is the perfect introduction to More the artist, the person, and the icon. A few weeks ago, Mr. Radanovich kindly agreed to guest on a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast, and we had the chance to discuss in depth both his book and his love for More's music. The whole conversation, which I found extremely interesting, is now available to the readers of Jazz Flashes on the video below.


Friday, March 30, 2018

Louis Armstrong & Oscar Peterson, 1957

Though his career began back in the twenties, Louis Armstrong cut some of his best albums in the 1950s—Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, his classic collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald for Verve, and Louis Under the Stars are just a few examples. Perhaps because of the sheer quantity and quality of his recordings from this era, his 1957 meeting with pianist Oscar Peterson is often forgotten or overlooked by critics, and very unjustly so. Predictably titled Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, the album was recorded in Hollywood over the course of two separate sessions in July and October 1957 and finds Satchmo at his most laid-back and relaxed, going through a number of well-chosen standards with the inestimable help of Peterson's quartet. Armstrong's vocalizing is showcased to a greater extent than his trumpet playing (though he takes some exciting solos, such as on "Let's Fall in Love" and "Moon Song") which may be another reason that has affected the visibility of the record and its lukewarm critical reception.



Brown, Peterson, and Ellis
But no matter, because the mood achieved by Armstrong, Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Louis Bellson is delightful. The album opener, "That Old Feeling," sets the pace as the dates are mostly dominated by medium tempos, which works really well with tunes such as "I Was Doing All Right," "Just One of Those Things," and "Sweet Lorraine." Armstrong typically sings to the accompaniment of the Peterson trio plus Bellson, occasionally throwing in trumpet solos that aren't as brief as some critics have noted. The bluesy 5-minute reading of "Blues in the Night" is arguably one of the highlights of the sessions, which also yielded some excellent slow numbers, such as "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "What's New?" On "There's No You," Armstrong's voice is backed only by Ellis's lovely guitar, and the track makes us wish Satchmo had recorded a whole album with Ellis, something that, alas, never happened. The slow, wistful approach to "You Go to My Head" is yet another memorable performance that has Armstrong playing the tune once through and then going into the vocals. The 1997 CD reissue fortunately offers four extra tracks ("I Get a Kick Out of You," "Makin' Whoopee," "Willow Weep for Me," and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)") that never made it to the original vinyl release but that are equally engaging. Once again, producer Norman Granz was right in pairing Louis and Oscar, and over 60 years later, the outcome of their collaboration is in need of rediscovery and reevaluation.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Jazz Flashes Podcast: Interview with Jazz Pianist Marc Devine

Marc Devine performing at Smalls
Not long ago I published a blog post in which I reviewed Inspiration, the debut album as a leader by New York-based pianist Marc Devine, a trio outing alongside bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka. Shortly after the review was published, Devine agreed to guest on a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast and joined me from NYC to discuss the CD, his life and career, and his views on jazz and the current New York jazz scene, among many other topics. The entire 85-minute conversation is now available here below for any readers who may be interested in listening to it. For more information about the Marc Devine Trio and their excellent, swing-drenched debut album, please visit Devine's homepage.