Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Frank Sinatra and Neal Hefti Swing with Brass, 1962

Since 2015 has marked Frank Sinatra's centennial, which was duly celebrated throughout the year in the mass media, it seems only fitting to end the year with a post about the Chairman of the Board, and more specifically about one of those albums he recorded in the 1960s that often get lost in the mix when it comes to discussing his contribution to 20th-century popular music. Sinatra and Swingin' Brass, released in 1962 on his own label, Reprise Records, represents Sinatra's first full-length collaboration with arranger Neal Hefti, who had worked intermittently with the singer in the previous ten years but hadn't had the chance to arrange a whole album for Sinatra before. This was Sinatra's fifth Reprise project, and like other records he cut for the label (Ring-a-Ding-Ding and I Remember Tommy, for instance) it constitutes a look back at the big band days, with powerful, swinging arrangements that favor uptempo numbers over ballads. This is evident from the opening track, a jumpy take on "Goody Goody" that features some exciting drumming from Earl Palmer. The arrangement of this song is precisely the one Sinatra used on live appearances from this period like the one captured on the CD Sinatra and Sextet Live in Paris. Looking through the track listing, the only slow song on the LP is "Serenade in Blue," and even here the tempo builds up steadily, and it turns out to be quite a danceable reading of the old Mack Gordon and Harry Warren standard.

Neal Hefti and Frank Sinatra in the studio in the 1960s
Sinatra also seems interested in updating some of the tunes he'd already recorded for Capitol with Nelson Riddle, such as "I Get a Kick Out of You," "At Long Last Love," and "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Hefti does an excellent job reinventing Riddle's familiar arrangements without ever sounding like Riddle, which is indeed a difficult task, and "Kick" is punctuated by a lovely alto sax solo that probably comes courtesy of Joe Maini. Tenor saxophone legend Ben Webster also contributes a characteristically classy solo to Duke Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See the Light," but it's much too brief and makes us wish that someone had seen fit to feature Webster more prominently on these sessions. In hindsight, of course, it's baffling to consider that nobody thought of that at the time. Sinatra runs through "Tangerine," a song often recorded by different bands during the Swing Era and before, in an appropriately light-hearted sort of way, and "Ain't She Sweet" is a fine example of Hefti's inventive arranging inspiring Sinatra to play around with the melody and the inconsequential lyrics, something that he also does on "Love Is Just Around the Corner." In an album in which most tracks clock in at under three minutes, "Don'cha Go 'Way Mad" is one of the longest arrangements and to my ears perhaps one of the least interesting, maybe because the song isn't one of the strongest in the set. Hefti makes Cole Porter's "I Love You" swing lightly at the beginning, but then towards the end, Sinatra comes back to drive the song home with a bang. "Pick Yourself Up" is a fitting closing track for the album, and here Sinatra seems to be having fun with Hefti's attractive chart until he finally decides that he's had enough and actually ends the record by jokingly saying so. It wouldn't take too long for Hefti to work with Sinatra again: just a few months later they were back in the studio together, along with the Count Basie Orchestra, to record Sinatra-Basie, but this first collaboration between the two, although perhaps not as well known as the album with Basie, is full of the same kind of excitement that Hefti helped create for the Basie band of the Atomic period and should be celebrated as one of Sinatra's best outings of his Reprise years.

Friday, December 25, 2015

A Soulful Christmas with Ramsey Lewis

The Ramsey Lewis Trio
Every year, as the holiday season approaches, it seems to me that the holiday spirit definitely feels much better when the music sounds soulful and jazzy, and even better when it has a touch of the blues. So after re-reading a record tip I submitted to the Friends of Jan Lundgren website about a year ago, I've decided to post briefly about one of my favorite Christmas albums—Sound of Christmas, by the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Cut in October 1961 for the Argo label (a Chess subsidiary) at Chicago's Ter-Mar studios, the original LP came out about three years before Lewis's memorable "The In-Crowd," but by this time, the pianist was already earning a reputation as one of the most soulful jazzmen on the scene, a pioneer of what would become known as soul jazz. This can be heard on all ten tracks of his exciting Christmas album (which was reissued on CD by Verve in 2004) both in his treatment of Yuletide evergreens and in the two original compositions that Lewis contributed to these sessions.

Though the soulful atmosphere is present throughout, the two sides of the record are markedly different. The five tracks on the first side find Lewis on piano in a trio setting alongside Eldee Young on bass and Redd Holt on drums. They take Johnny Mercer's "Winter Wonderland" at an appropriately bouncy tempo and infuse "Here Comes Santa Claus" with an irresistible R&B beat that makes it one of the highlights of the album. Lewis slows down "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" considerably, and shows that the blues is an important ingredient of his musical recipe on "Merry Christmas, Baby" (another standout) and his own "Christmas Blues." The second side is also comprised of five tunes, but this time the trio is augmented by string arrangements by Riley Hampton. Lewis's "The Sound of Christmas" begins with a semiclassical introduction, but it soon becomes clear that the spotlight is still on the pianist, who occasionally switches to celesta on some tracks, such as a beautiful reading of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." The old traditional carol "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is reinvented from a R&B perspective, and "Sleigh Ride" sounds as festive as it should. Finally, Hampton's strings embellish "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" but stay out of the way as Lewis turns in a wonderful, wistful performance, almost as though he were playing just for himself and being merely overheard by the microphones. The sounds that Lewis creates for Christmas are always surprising and engaging, making this the perfect record to play if one wants to bring a bluesy, soulful strain to the holiday season.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Swinging Christmas with the Big Bands

At the end of every year, right after Thanksgiving, Christmas music begins to fill our home in Martin, TN, and the jazzier the rhythm, the more enjoyable it is! While the idea of holiday music as a very profitable business must be traced back to Bing Crosby's early 1930s recordings of "Silent Night" and "Adeste Fideles" for Decca, it didn't take too long for everyone else to follow in Bing's footsteps, and by the time the Swing Era erupted, all major bands were including Christmas tunes in their repertoires—and finding out that many of them kept being popular and selling year after year. Fortunately, there are several compilations of big band holiday music currently available, but my personal favorite of its kind is Christmas on the Bandstand (Columbia/Legacy) because it features 12 timeless performances cut between 1939 and 1962 by name bands like those led by Harry James, Benny Goodman, Les Brown, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington, among others, all with great sound and some well-written liner notes by Will Friedwald, whose contributions are always a plus.

Les Brown and a young Doris Day
Some of the tracks included are the expected holiday evergreens, such as "White Christmas" (by Harry James, with a fine vocal by Marion Morgan), "Jingle Bells" (a 1962 recording by the Ellington band arranged by his son Mercer Ellington, one of the absolute highlights of the collection), and "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (in a Sammy Kaye version that is the perfect synthesis of sweetness and corn). Kay Kyser shows both sides of the sound of his very popular outfit here: first, the band has fun with the catchy "Hello, Mr. Kringle," complete with a contribution from the inimitable Ish Kabibble; then, Harry Babbitt shows off his crooning wares on the beautiful "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Woody Herman gives us an excitingly swinging "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and Harry James takes us on a Latin American trip on the rare "Brazilian Sleigh Bells." It soon becomes clear that not all the songs actually refer to Christmas, but the compilation also features its share of winter songs, such as Benny Goodman's "Winter Weather" (Art Lund and Peggy Lee provide the vocals), Eddy Duchin's "When Winter Comes," and Les Brown's lovely "Sleigh Ride in July" (with Gordon Drake handling the vocal chorus). Brown's Band of Renown also offers "When You Trim Your Christmas Tree," a lesser-known gem featuring vocalist Jack Haskell, and puts the spotlight on Doris Day on a magnificent reading of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song." This is undoubtedly the place to start for anyone who would like to infuse some solid swing into the holiday season.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Harry Allen and Jan Lundgren Play Johnny Mandel

I just learned that Britain's prestigious Jazz Journal has named two albums by Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren among the top-ten best jazz records in its yearly Critics' Poll. One of these (coming in at number 3) is the compilation Jan Lundgren: A Retrospective, which includes some of the best sides Lundgren has cut since the beginning of his career in the mid-1990s for the Barcelona-based Fresh Sound label. You can read a review of that CD here. The other, which made it to number 6 in the poll, is a collaboration between Lundgren and tenorist Harry Allen, entitled Quietly There (Stunt Records). Recorded in Copenhagen over the course of two consecutive sessions on July 11 and 12, 2014, the album finds Allen and Lundgren in the company of bassist Hans Backenroth and drummer Kristian Leth, going through nine lovely Johnny Mandel compositions, some of which ("Emily," "A Time for Love," and "The Shadow of Your Smile," for instance) are better known than others.

The Harry Allen / Jan Lundgren Quartet
The pairing of Allen and Lundgren is extremely satisfying, and aided by such a dependable rhythm section, both men enjoy plenty of room to solo, both on mid-tempo and uptempo numbers such as "Sure as You Are Born" (a phenomenal album opener), "Cinnamon and Clove," and "Suicide Is Painless" (which is actually the theme from M.A.S.H.) as well as on slower tunes. The breathy quality of Allen's style, often vaguely reminiscent of Ben Webster, comes to the fore particularly on ballads like "Emily" and "The Shining Sea." Both musicians take the title track, "Quietly There," at an easy-swinging pace, which is already evident in Lundgren's attractive piano introduction, followed by some elegant blowing by Allen. Lundgren finds new ways to approach the popular ballad "The Shadow of Your Smile" and surprises the listener by choosing to begin with the verse. The piano-saxophone duo that kicks off that track is one of the most beautiful moments in the album, and when Backenroth and Leth come in about a third into the tune, the slightly Latin flavor they lend the melody sounds very appealing. "Just a Child" finds Lundgren at his most delicate and introverted, as though he were playing just for himself, and Allen seems to be inspired by Lundgren's introduction to put an even greater emphasis on the breathiness of his playing. Of course, congratulations are in order for Lundgren and Allen, not just for the deserved accolades their work has earned from Jazz Journal, but also because this collaboration is one of the very best entries in the already large discographies of both men.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

John Kirby Meets Beethoven

John Kirby
Since we're celebrating Ludwig Van Beethoven's 245th birthday today, it seems interesting to remember that there are numerous jazz compositions that have been inspired by—and in some cases are plain rip-offs of—classical themes, not to mention jazzmen like Benny Goodman who have dabbled in classical music and classically trained musicians like Andre Previn who have tried their hand at jazz. In fact, Igor Stravinsky was so fascinated by the sound of the Woody Herman Orchestra that he famously composed an Ebony Concerto for Herman in 1945. The examples are too many to list thoroughly here, but one of them is particularly interesting because it concerns a composition by Beethoven himself—John Kirby's "Beethoven Riffs On," based on the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Born in Baltimore in 1908, Kirby was a tuba player who switched to bass and played with Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb before forming his own group, the John Kirby Sextet, which was extremely popular at the height of the Swing Era, in the late 1930s and early '40s.

The John Kirby Sextet on stage.
Critical appreciation of Kirby's small band has been mixed. Although he admires some of its soloists, such as Charlie Shavers or Buster Bailey, critic Gunther Schuller considers that the sextet "can in balance barely be considered in the realm of jazz." Ben Ratliff is somewhat more appreciative of Kirby's music, but he still calls the sextet "a gimmick band." While this is true, it must be admitted that Kirby's gimmick was witty and exciting and that many of his recordings have actually stood the test of time. His was a tightly arranged band that oozes with enthusiasm and musicianship, and all the members of the sextet usually sound like they're having fun, whether they're romping through an Irving Berlin tune or jazzing up classical compositions by Frédéric Chopin or Beethoven. One of their most memorable treatments of a classical piece is "Beethoven Riffs On," cut in New York City on January 15, 1941, with Kirby on bass, Shavers on trumpet, Bailey on clarinet, Russell Procope on alto sax, Billy Kyle on piano, and O'Neil Spencer on drums. Clocking in at just under three minutes, this recording is a classic example of Kirby's sound, heavily based on ensemble playing and musical gimmickry, but still allowing a couple of solid, though brief solos by Procope and Shavers. All these years later, it still comes across as engaging and inventive, and I have no doubt that Beethoven himself would have approved of this syncopated version of his composition had he had a chance to listen to it! Unfortunately, despite the huge success of records such as 1938's "Undecided," by the mid-1940s Kirby's recording activities were in steep decline and he disbanded around 1945. He did attempt a failed comeback in the early 1950s, and following complications from diabetes, he passed away in 1952.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Cy Coleman at the Piano

At his last recording session for Columbia in 1952, Frank Sinatra cut a beautiful, self-mocking ballad entitled "Why Try to Change Me Now." Seven years later, when he made his Capitol album No One Cares, Sinatra recorded it again, this time using a lovely arrangement by Gordon Jenkins. The song had been written by Cy Coleman, and these two wonderful versions by Sinatra were my introduction to the work of this prolific, though often somewhat neglected songwriter, who also provided Ol' Blue Eyes with other classics such as "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come" and wrote other memorable songs like "It Amazes Me" and "Hey, Look Me Over." Born in New York City in 1929, Coleman was a child prodigy who impressed audiences with his piano recitals at highly respected venues like Carnegie Hall and Town Hall at a very early age. His first love being jazz, it didn't take him long to form a jazz trio, and he began playing the clubs in and around New York and writing songs in his spare time. Although he was much in demand as a musician, he decided to concentrate on songwriting, and by the 1960s he was composing very successful Broadway musicals such as Wildcat (in 1960, with Carolyn Leigh) and Sweet Charity (in 1966, with Dorothy Fields). Over the years, Coleman would collaborate with other popular songwriters and playwrights, like Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Neil Simon, and he would create several celebrated Broadway shows and TV specials, remaining active until his death in New York in 2004 at age 75.

In order to fully appreciate Coleman's legacy, it becomes necessary to listen to some of the few albums he cut, mostly in a trio setting, and one of the best is Comin' Home: The Jazz Album. Don't be fooled by its dubious cover: this is Cy Coleman at his finest, ably accompanied by bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Grady Tate, with producer Dave Cavanaugh overseeing the sessions. The 13 tracks were recorded over the course of two separate sessions at the Capitol Studio in Los Angeles in March and April 1963, and from the very beginning, a gently swinging rendition of George and Ira Gershwin's "But Not for Me," we know we're in for quite a treat. Surprisingly, Coleman stays away from his own compositions here ("I've Got Your Number" is the only one of his songs that he includes), much preferring to concentrate on standards by other songwriters such as Harry Warren and Mack Gordon ("There Will Never Be Another You"), Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn ("Time After Time"), Bart Howard ("Fly Me to the Moon"), and Fred Ahlert and Roy Turk ("Mean to Me"). Ben Tucker contributes a bouncy, bluesy original entitled "Blue Grass Groove," and the trio turn in an extremely hip version of "Comin' Home Baby." Coleman proves to be a very inventive improviser, constantly reinventing the melodies and mostly eschewing ballads in favor of mid-tempo and uptempo numbers that suit his elegant playing style perfectly. And yet, when he decides to attempt a ballad, as he does on "For Heaven's Sake," he shows that he can also be sensitive and romantic. This is the perfect introduction to Cy Coleman the jazz pianist, and I have no doubt that anyone who listens to it will want to seek out the rest of the few albums by Coleman that are currently available on CD. They're all well worth the time and the money!

Saturday, December 12, 2015

June Christy's Radio Transcription Sessions with Johnny Guarnieri, 1949

Born Shirley Luster in Springfield, IL, in 1925, June Christy was one of the best female vocalists to come out of the Big Band Era, thanks in particular to her classic work with Stan Kenton in the mid-1940s. Subsequently, she would go on to carve out a successful career as a solo recording artist throughout the 1950s, producing such memorable albums as Something Cool, Ballads for the Night People, and The Misty Miss Christy, all of them recorded for Capitol. Before hitting the big time with Kenton, via smashes like "Tampico" and "How High the Moon," Christy honed her vocal skills working with the orchestras led by Boyd Raeburn and Benny Strong. But it was during her rather brief tenure with Kenton that her career would be changed forever: not only did she make some enduring records with the band, but it was the bandleader himself that persuaded her to adopt the stage name of June Christy. Kenton disbanded in 1948, and one year later Christy began making a series of radio transcriptions accompanied by a quintet led by pianist Johnny Guarnieri.

Guarnieri, who had been born in New York and was about eight years Christy's senior, had made a name for himself working alongside Benny Goodman and playing harpsichord, of all instruments, on recordings by Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five. As these sessions show, he was a sensitive accompanist who understood Christy's cool, boppish approach to singing perfectly. Though when these transcription sessions took place Christy's classic Something Cool album still lay five years ahead, we can already hear more than hints of the style that would make her such an instantly recognizable singer during her tenure with Capitol. Christy sounds extremely relaxed on these sides, both coolly sensual on ballads and gently swinging on uptempo numbers. The small-group setting is ideal for her, and although not much information is available regarding the identity of all the musicians involved, it seems that besides Guarnieri on piano, we can hear Leo Guarnieri on bass, Frank Garisti and Morey Feld on drums, Charles DiMaggio on saxophone, and George Walters on trumpet. Since these discs were produced to be licensed to radio stations, the repertoire is mostly comprised of familiar standards, the kind of material with which both the band and Christy herself felt entirely at home. Fortunately, the British label Jasmine Records has released all of these transcription recordings on a three-volume series entitled A Friendly Session, and the informal atmosphere of these dates makes these CDs an absolute joy to hear.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Wilton Gaynair: A Jamaican Saxophonist in Europe

When one considers Jamaica's contributions to world music, it's inevitable to think of reggae and ska, but jazz may not be the first thing that comes readily to mind. And yet in the 1940s and '50s, a group of Jamaican jazzmen that included trumpeter Dizzy Reece and altoist Joe Harriott moved to England and made their mark on British jazz. Among this group was tenorist Wilton Gaynair, nicknamed "Bogey," although he actually settled in Germany, where he didn't have much trouble finding a job within the ranks of the popular jazz-inflected orchestra led by Kurt Edelhagen. Born in Kingston in 1927, Gaynair learned to play the saxophone while at the famous Alpha Boys School and was soon a regular fixture at the local clubs before relocating to Europe in 1955 at Reece's behest. Producer Tony Hall, who supervised some of Gaynair's sessions, describes the saxophonist as "a very humble, modest man," which is perhaps one of the reasons why the groups he led always sound so relaxed and the interaction between the musicians appears to be seamless. Unfortunately, Gaynair only cut three albums as a leader, the first two (Blue Bogey and Africa Calling) for the British label Tempo in  1959 and 1960, and a third one (Alpharian) in Germany in 1982, some 22 years after his second outing for Tempo.

Although, after leaving Jamaica, Gaynair lived most of his life in Germany, the session that yielded Blue Bogey took place in London on August 26, 1959. Seven songs were cut under Hall's supervision in a quartet setting with Gaynair on tenor, Terry Shannon on piano, Kenny Napper on bass, and Bill Eyden on drums, filling in for the great Phil Seamen, who apparently wasn't able to make it to the session. Besides a fine reading of Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring" and the two standards ("The Way You Look Tonight" and "Gone with the Wind") that brought both the session and the album to a close and that are taken at a rather brisk pace, four originals by Gaynair were recorded, and they offer ample proof of his talent as a composer. The album opener, "Wilton's Mood," is based on a catchy riff that is stated both at the beginning and at the end, and "Blues for Tony," dedicated to the session's producer, is an engaging blues tune played with conviction by Gaynair, who is ably supported by the rest of the band. "Deborah" is a beautiful ballad written for Shannon's daughter, and here Gaynair's relaxed, lyrical approach shows his debt to both Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges. "Rhythm" is a great example of the perfect understanding that exists between the four members of the quartet, since it was originally just a rehearsal that sounded so good that it was deemed a keeper! In fact, the whole album is a keeper, a wonderful, sadly neglected record that is best enjoyed when one dims the lights.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Little Johnny C.: Johnny Coles on Blue Note, 1962

Though he was an extremely exciting and versatile player, Johnny Coles remains one of the most underappreciated trumpeters in jazz history. This is possibly because, although he participated in numerous sessions as a sideman, he cut very few albums as a leader, much preferring to enhance the records of others with his beautiful playing. Born in Trenton, NJ, in 1926, Coles began his career working in a rhythm and blues setting with the likes of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Bull Moose Jackson, Earl Bostic, and Gene Ammons, which surely goes a long way toward explaining his cool, bluesy approach to playing both the trumpet and the flugelhorn. Over the years he would work alongside giants such as Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Ray Charles, to name just a few, always managing to stand out due to his highly personal style but hardly ever getting the chance to lead his own sessions. His first album as a leader was 1961's The Warm Sound, and in 1962 he cut his only—and arguably best—record for Blue Note, Little Johnny CBy this time he'd been performing and making records with arranger Gil Evans and had come into contact with pianist Duke Pearson, who was instrumental in putting together the Blue Note dates and who contributed five of the six songs in the album.

The LP was recorded over the course of two sessions held at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in July and August 1962 and finds Coles in a sextet setting along with Pearson (piano), Leo Wright (alto sax and flute), Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Bob Cranshaw (bass), and Walter Perkins (drums). Drummer Pete LaRoca replaces Perkins in the August session. The three tracks on the first side of the album were cut at the July date, and they all derive from the blues idiom, particularly "Little Johnny C." and "Jano," both written by Pearson. "Hobo Joe," written by Henderson, also has a blues structure but adds a very engaging Latin beat. Pearson contributed all the compositions recorded at the August date (as well as the very interesting liner notes for the album, by the way), and these include "My Sweet Passion," a sort of waltz that fits Coles's sensitive playing perfectly and that features a nice flute solo from Wright, and "Heavy Legs," an uptempo tune that is one of the highlights. The album closes with "So Sweet My Little Girl," a ballad that Pearson apparently wrote for his daughter and that showcases Coles's cool approach to slow numbers. After this magnificent, though sadly forgotten, outing, Coles would only record one more album under his name and would retire from playing professionally in 1989, about 8 years before his death, which occurred in December 1997 in Philadelphia.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, July 1963

My friend and colleague, Dan Nappo, recently drove up to St. Louis and surprised me by bringing me back a copy of Ella and Basie!, a superb album that I heard quite a bit growing up but that, for some strange reason, never became a part of my jazz collection—until now. Dan's thoughtful gift has given me the chance to listen to it once again all these years later, which made me realize what a fantastic record it is, undoubtedly one of the high points in the long careers of both Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. The high-powered pairing of the vocal jazz diva and the perfectly oiled swing machine commanded by Basie was caught on tape by Verve Records owner, Norman Granz, over two sessions held in July 1963, and at that time, the band featured such outstanding musicians as trumpeter Joe Newman, trombonists Urbie Green and Benny Powell, reedmen Frank Foster and Frank Wess, drummer Sonny Payne, and trusty guitarist Freddie Green. As if that weren't enough, Quincy Jones was at the helm and provided all the charts, and from the outset, it became clear that the emphasis would be on solid swing rather than slow numbers. As a matter of fact, even the few ballads we find among the 12 selections on the original LP have a certain sexy bounce to them—"My Last Affair" is a good example of this—and on one, "Dream a Little Dream of Me," Basie contributes to the dreamy atmosphere by switching to organ.

Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie.
But we mustn't forget that this is a meeting between two giants of rhythm, and so the repertoire has been chosen accordingly. Ella had introduced "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall" when she cut it for Decca with the Ink Spots in the mid 1940s, but this version with the Basie band is the polar opposite of the earlier recording, allowing Ella to swing freely, as she does on many other tracks, like "Tea for Two," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," and "Ain't Misbehavin'." Quincy Jones understood the Basie outfit perfectly, so his arrangements spotlight the amazing musicianship of the orchestra as a whole, and some of the numbers become vehicles for Ella's exciting scatting. That is the case of "Honeysuckle Rose," "Them There Eyes," and "Satin Doll," on which Ella's scatted contributions turn her into yet another soloist within the band. Both Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll" and Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings" find Ella swinging at her most elegant and sophisticated, and "On the Sunny Side of the Street," with Ella's playful handling of the Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields tune, is a fitting finale for a marvelous album. The 1997 digipack CD reissue includes several takes of "My Last Affair" and "Robbins' Nest" (the latter not used on the album) which provide some insight into the recording process. Ella and Basie would meet again a number of times in subsequent years, but this first encounter remains the most satisfying.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Guest Contributor: Noal Cohen on Gigi Gryce's 90th Anniversary Tribute at Smalls Jazz Club, NYC

Noal Cohen
Jazz legend Gigi Gryce would have turned 90 last Saturday, November 28, and the anniversary was celebrated at Smalls Jazz Club, in New York City, with a stellar tribute featuring the Chris Byars sextet. My friend Noal Cohen, an accomplished musician and jazz historian who is the author of the definitive biography of Gryce, was there, and he has agreed to contribute a brief Jazz Flash about the event. I appreciate it, Noal, and I sincerely wish I could have been there!


Promoting the legacies of largely forgotten jazz musicians can be a frustrating undertaking. It always was, but in today’s world of tweets, sound bites and history being what happened yesterday, it seems at times almost impossible to get people interested in musicians like Gigi Gryce, Lucky Thompson, Frank Strozier, Teddy Charles, Elmo Hope, Herb Geller and many more.

That’s why an event that took place on November 28, 2015, at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City was quite remarkable. It was a tribute to saxophonist / arranger / composer / music publisher Gigi Gryce (aka Basheer Qusim) on the 90th anniversary of his birth. The band performing Gryce’s music was the Chris Byars Sextet with Chris, alto sax, John Mosca, trombone, Stefano Doglioni, bass clarinet, Pasquale Grasso (guitar – his parents were in the audience), Ari Roland, bass and Stefan Schatz, drums and they were on fire! The club was packed for both sets and the audience was appreciative, attentive and totally into the music and Gryce’s intriguing story. Vocalist Yaala Ballin sang Gryce’s classic “Social Call” with Jon Hendricks’ lyrics and alto saxophonist Zaid Nasser sat in on a couple of numbers. (It’s interesting to note that when Chris Byars did his first Gryce concert at Smalls back in November of 2002, the vocalist who sang “Social Call” was a young Nellie McKay.)

Saxophonist Chris Byars
And it should not be assumed that these performances were simply recreations of the past. No, it was old wine in new bottles, with Byars’ arrangements and the musicians' solos putting a 2015 spin on music dating back to the 1950s.

Yours truly got to speak about the 13 Gryce compositions that were performed and sign copies of Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce (Current Research in Jazz, second edition). One copy went to a beautiful lady who had travelled all the way from Finland. Another to a delightful young man from Wisconsin with Down Syndrome who expressed to me his love of jazz. Smalls is truly a New York City arts destination and can always be counted on to be filled with patrons from all over the world as well as musicians young and old looking for a venue to play straight ahead, swinging music.

Noal Cohen
Montclair, NJ

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Harry Parry & His Radio Sextets

If ever anybody was more deserving of being described as a multi-instrumentalist, that musician was Harry Parry, the Welsh bandleader who mastered all sorts of instruments, from reeds to brass to drums to the violin, before settling for a career as a clarinetist leading several trio and sextet combos on highly popular BBC radio shows throughout the 1940s and '50s. Not only was Parry an accomplished musician, but his vast knowledge of the history of jazz made him a perfect host for the BBC's Jazz Club series as well. His rise to stardom was preceded by a period of apprenticeship within the ranks of several dance bands led by then-popular names such as Oscar Grasso, Charles Shadwell, and Louis Levy, among many others. Parry, who sang occasionally, also had a fine ear for talent, and some of the small swing groups that he fronted when popular acclaim beckoned included a young George Shearing on piano. Shearing was also featured on some of the trios and sextets that Parry put together for broadcasting purposes during the World War II years.

The war and postwar period of Parry's career is precisely what is captured on the 2004 Dutton Vocalion release, Parry Opus. The 26 tracks included on the CD were recorded between 1942 and 1946 are perfect examples of Parry in his prime, playing the clarinet and leading sextets that often feature Shearing on piano and Ben Edwards on drums. As a clarinetist, Parry was obviously influenced by Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, so it's no wonder that he chose to record songs that were closely associated with Shaw and Goodman, such as "Frenesi," "Moonglow," "Runnin' Wild," "After You've Gone," and "Body and Soul." As these sides show, there is always a sort of restrained elegance to Parry's playing, and he leads his sextets with great conviction and charm. The collection also features some of his own compositions, including "Parry Opus" and "Potomac Jump," the latter written during a highly acclaimed engagement at London's Potomac restaurant. Both the contents and the fantastic sound make this release the perfect introduction to Parry's sound, which still comes across as fresh and exciting all these years later. Parry, who also dabbled in acting and television, passed away in London in 1956, due to a heart attack, when he was only 44 years old.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Swedish Trumpeter Bengt-Arne Wallin Dies at 89

I just heard from my Stockholm-based friend, Guy Jones, founder and president of Friends of Jan Lundgren, the fan club of pianist Jan Lundgren, that legendary Swedish trumpeter Bengt-Arne Wallin passed away on November 23. He was 89 years old, and even though he's far from a household name in the United States, he devoted his whole life to music and was extremely well respected in Scandinavian jazz circles. Born in Linköping, Wallin showed an interest in music at an early age and concentrated on the trumpet and the flugelhorn. He spent much of the 1950s and '60s playing and recording alongside such European jazz luminaries as Arne Domnérus and Lars Gullin, and when American tenor saxophonist Benny Golson made some recordings with Scandinavian jazzmen, Wallin was one of the musicians who were called in for the sessions.

Like pianist Jan Johansson, Wallin became interested in exploring the relationship between Swedish folk music and jazz, and his recordings in this vein garnered him much acclaim in his homeland. Besides his work as a trumpeter, Wallin was also valued as an arranger and composer (he wrote music for films and TV productions), and he also spent two decades as a music teacher at Stockholm's Musikhögskolan. Throughout his long and successful career, Wallin acted as mentor to younger musicians such as trombonist Nils Landgren, who, upon hearing of Wallin's passing, called him "my greatest mentor, both as a musician and as a human being." Pianist Jan Lundgren also remembered Wallin on his Facebook page, reflecting on how thankful he was to have had the chance to work with the great trumpeter, whom he considers "one of the finest arrangers we have had." I must admit that the only recordings I've ever heard by Wallin are the ones he made in 1959 and 1960 as part of an octet led by saxophonist Lars Gullin, which can be found in the Gullin 4-CD set, Portrait of the Legendary Baritone Saxophonist: The Complete Recordings 1956-1960 (Fresh Sound Records). On these, of course, Gullin is the star and the spotlight is mostly on him, but Wallin comes across as a very dependable accompanist in ensemble passages, and on "Blue Mail" and "Baritonome," for example, he even gets to contribute some highly original, exciting solos that make you wish he'd been featured a little more prominently. On the strength of these sides alone, there's little doubt that Wallin is a musician whose recorded legacy is worth exploring further.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Herbie Brock's 'Herbie's Room'

I recently wrote an article in Spanish about Herbie Brock, who is possibly one of the most obscure pianists in jazz history and sadly forgotten these days. That post was about his 1956 Savoy album, Brock's Tops, one of merely six records he made between 1955 and 1965, most of which aren't even available on CD. The only full-length writing I've found about Brock is this entry in Wall Street Journal jazz critic Marc Myers's blog, JazzWax, and in it, Myers tells us that Brock learned to play the piano, the organ, and the saxophone while attending the State School for the Blind in Batavia, NY, and then appeared in clubs in Rochester and even toured as a piano duo with one Buddy Satan, who was his brother-in-law. In the early 1950s, Brock relocated to Florida, soon garnering quite a reputation at Miami's Onyx Club, which led to his mid-'50s recordings for Savoy and Criteria. As far as we know, Brock didn't make any further records after 1965, though he kept appearing live in clubs, mostly around Florida and the Miami area.

Herbie's Room is his third album, and the only one he made for Criteria (fortunately reissued in 2000 by VSOP), and it was recorded live in August 1957 at a club called Herbie's Room, apparently because, as the liner notes by Jeff Barr state, "the owner had Brock at the keyboard seven days a week." On the eight tracks—most of them standards—Brock is accompanied by Brooks Caperton on bass and Bill Ladley on drums, and his very attractive piano style mixes swing and bop in equal parts, clearly reflecting the influence of both Art Tatum and Bud Powell, two pianists that Brock admired greatly. Brock is at his most boppish on Sonny Rollins's "Doxy" and Lennie Niehaus's "Johnny Jaguaar," and although this album doesn't include any of his own compositions, he imbues every track with his highly personal style, taking "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," for instance, at a faster tempo than is customary. Ballads such as "Tenderly," "My Funny Valentine," and "Laura" are full of Tatum-esque runs and sense of drama and suggest that Brock must have been listening to piano virtuosi like Eddy Duchin and Carmen Cavallaro. I love the very poetic way in which Myers sums up Brock's contribution to jazz, calling him "another superb jazz ship passing in the night." Albums like Herbie's Room leave no doubt that it's high time we brought him back out of obscurity.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Jimmy Rushing Live in New York with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn

The first time I ever heard Jimmy Rushing, on a recording of "He Ain't Got Rhythm" he made with Benny Goodman, I was impressed. But when I later discovered the outstanding records he cut with the Count Basie orchestra, I realized that Mr. Five by Five (such was his nickname due to his stocky complexion) was one of the most fascinating singers ever to come out of the Swing Era. Not only did he have rhythm, but his voice was immediately recognizable, and his blues phrasing was simply irresistible. Rushing had begun his career in the late 1920s in Kansas City, singing first with Walter Page's Blue Devils and then with Bennie Moten's band, out of which the Basie organization evolved. He helped popularize the blues within a big band swing context, but he wasn't just a blues shouter—he knew how to approach a pop tune and inflect it with an unmistakable bluesy feeling.

Jimmy Rushing at Newport in 1965
(Photo: Francine Winham)
After the years he spent within the ranks of the Basie band, Rushing made some very interesting albums for Vanguard and Columbia, and by the mid 1960s, he was appearing in New York clubs, which is the period of his career captured in The Scene: Live in New York (Hightone). The group backing Rushing on these live dates is led by saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and also includes Dave Frishberg on piano, Major Holley and John Beal on bass, and Mousey Alexander on drums. The band actually gets a chance to cut loose on two selections without Rushing ("The Red Door" and "It's Noteworthy") but the singer, who is in fine form, is the main attraction here. The repertoire features both standards ("I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," "Baby Ain't I Good to You") and blues numbers ("Goin' to Chicago," "Good Morning Blues") that were closely associated with him during his Basie years. The sound of the recordings is excellent, and Rushing's performances are very relaxed and ooze charm and conviction. While any Rushing collection should begin with his records with Basie, this is a worthwhile snapshot of his lesser-known later years.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Bing Crosby and Some Jazz Friends

Back in 2010 I began The Vintage Bandstand with a post about Bing Crosby, so it's only fitting that I'd start this new blog talking about Crosby as well, particularly because in my early teens, Der Bingle was one of my main gateways into jazz. Crosby, who is mostly known to the general public for his Christmas recordings these days (which is a sad state of affairs, in my opinion), was a jazz singer of the first order. When Crosby changed the face of popular singing forever in the early 1930s, he did so not only by mastering the use of the microphone, but also by inflecting pop music with the tones, the sensibility, and the rhythm of jazz. And throughout his career, he always enjoyed singing and recording in a jazz setting and with jazz musicians. The 1991 Decca compilation, Bing Crosby and Some Jazz Friends, is a great way to get introduced to the jazziest side of Crosby's output via a series of fantastic duets recorded in the 1930s and '40s.

Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby
As Crosby shares the studio with fine artists such as Jack Teagarden ("The Birth of the Blues"), Connie Boswell ("Basin Street Blues"), Woody Herman ("I Ain't Got Nobody"), Eddie Condon (two takes of "After You've Gone"), and Lionel Hampton ("On the Sunny Side of the Street"), we are reminded of how thoroughly the singer understood the jazz idiom and how relaxed and extremely hip his phrasing always was. Crosby's two sides with Louis Jordan, "Your Socks Don't Match" and "My Baby Said Yes," are two obvious highlights of this album, which also includes duets with his brother Bob Crosby ("When My Dreamboat Comes Home"), Lee Wiley ("I Still Suits Me") and Louis Armstrong on the semi-impromptu "Gone Fishin'." One of the most charming tracks features Crosby having a ball with Satchmo and Jimmy Dorsey on a very appealing reading of "Pennies from Heaven." Overall, this is a CD that all vocal jazz fans should own lest they forget that there was a jazzier side to Bing Crosby than can be heard on "White Christmas."

Welcome to Jazz Flashes!

Jazz Flashes is a new blog that I am starting today as a companion site to The Vintage Bandstand, the blog on classic jazz and the crooners that I have been publishing since 2010. As its title implies, Jazz Flashes will feature a series of brief posts—the flashes—that will concentrate on all kinds of jazz, from New Orleans jazz to swing to bop to hard bop and beyond. These posts will spotlight a wide range of musicians, recordings, concerts, books, photographs, videos, and anything related to the world of jazz that may be of interest to our readers. Whereas The Vintage Bandstand concentrates on longer, more detailed articles, Jazz Flashes will include shorter, more straight-to-the-point posts. In that respect, we will sacrifice depth for immediacy, in an attempt to write in a more conversational way and spread the word about quality jazz in as direct a manner as possible.

Therefore, welcome one and all to this new venture into the world of jazz! I hope you will find something that piques your interest among all these brief Jazz Flashes.

Anton Garcia-Fernandez
Jazz Flashes
Martin, Tennessee