Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas Jazz: Kenny Burrell; Mattias Nilsson & Ray Aichinger

With the holiday season already upon us, it's time to review a couple of very recommendable Christmas jazz albums, both a classic and a newer issue. The former is Kenny Burrell's guitar-and-orchestra affair from 1966, entitled Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas, and released by the small Cadet label. Burrell definitely delivers on the title's promise—this is, indeed, a very soulful album from start to finish, with Burrell tackling both tunes one would expect ("White Christmas," "Silent Night") and others that are not as common ("Mary's Little Boy Chile," "Go Where I Send Thee"). Whether he's playing a wistful ballad or an uptempo number, Burrell's approach is always elegant and engaging, and even though he's accompanied by an orchestra and occasional strings, the focus is still on the guitar, both acoustic and electric. The intelligent arrangements by Richard Evans never get in the way and add to the soulfulness of the whole, even if the producers do tend to fade out some of the tracks. There isn't a single blemish on the album, from the sprightly version of "The Little Drummer Boy" that opens it to the bluesy reading of "Merry Christmas Baby" that serves as the closer. In between, there are many standouts, such as "My Favorite Things," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "The Christmas Song," which will help add some soul to your holidays!

The more recent release is Silent Nights, a seven-song album by the duo of Swedish pianist Mattias Nilsson and Austrian saxophonist Ray Aichinger. It was originally issued on CD in 2015, and now it's being made available again as a digital download by the Stockholm-based Fog Arts label. It's a very interesting collection because it couples two standards with a few carols from the European tradition that show how rewarding the relationship between the folk music of the Old World and jazz can be. The standards are a very lyrical reading of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" that echoes the style of Lester Young and Ben Webster, and an unlikely recasting of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" as a Yuletide song. One of the carols is "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht," which is none other than "Silent Night," and the other three ("Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton," "Macht Hoch Die Tür," and "Under Rönn och Syren") are pensive tunes that lend themselves perfectly to Nilsson and Aichinger's intimate approach. As a bonus, this digital reissue includes an original composition by the duo, "Blue December," which will also be featured in their forthcoming new holiday album, Peaceful in Dreams (European Jazz Records), which is actually slated to be released today.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Conversation with Guy Jones about Jan Lundgren's New Digital Reissues

Jan Lundgren
The Stockholm-based Fog Arts label has recently reissued three long-deleted albums by Swedish jazz pianist Jan Lundgren as digital downloads. I've already reviewed one of them in Jazz Flashes not too long ago, Jan Lundgren Trio Plays the Music of Victor Young. The other two are JLT Plays the Music of Jule Style and Something to Live For, the latter a Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn songbook. All three albums are available for download and streaming on all major internet platforms, and the Fog Arts people have further titles by Lundgren slated for digital reissue in the near future. For one of the episodes of the Jazz Flashes Podcast, which is available on YouTube and Podbean, I spoke with my good friend Guy Jones, the director of the Friends of Jan Lundgren fan club and General Manager of the newly formed Fog Arts label. You may listen to the whole conversation here:

Guy Jones
Throughout the podcast, Guy reminisces about how he became interested in Lundgren's music, how he started the Lundgren fan club, and how this new music venture came about. We also talk at length about the three Lundgren albums that are now available again after so many years thanks to the efforts of Fog Arts. All three CDs are highly recommendable and feature excellent guests such as singers Mark Murphy, Stacey Kent, and Deborah Brown, and legendary tenorman Johnny Griffin. I hope you enjoy the interview, and if so, please stay tuned for similar podcasts in the future!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

New Releases: Andy Brown's Direct Call

Born in New York but currently based in Chicago, Andy Brown, 41, is one of most accomplished jazz guitarist on the scene nowadays. Barely a year after the release of his lovely solo album, Soloist, Brown returns with an equally fantastic quartet outing entitled Direct Call (Delmark 5023), which very appropriately showcases the versatility and depth of his playing. Influenced by great guitarists such as Joe Pass, George Van Eps, Howard Alden (with whom he has also recorded for Delmark), and Kenny Poole, Brown has been around for quite a while and has had the chance to play alongside the likes of Harry Allen, Ken Peplowski, and Kurt Elling, to name but a few. He often collaborates with his wife, the vocalist Petra Van Nuis, and when in Chicago, you can always catch him at some of the most renowned clubs in the Windy City, such as The Green Mill and Andy's Jazz Club. At the latter he appears with his quartet, which is featured on this highly recommendable new album, and which includes Jeremy Kahn on piano, Joe Policastro on bass, and Phil Gratteau on drums. Writing in the October issue of Downbeat, critic Michael Jackson has called Brown a "classy guitarist" and his new CD "a swingin' affair," and he's absolutely right on both counts. It's at once rewarding and refreshing to be able to listen to this kind of unabashedly swinging music, and at the end of its 10 selections, the album actually leaves the listener hungry for more.

It doesn't hurt that Brown has had the opportunity to record with his working band, a group of outstanding musicians who understand one another perfectly. The CD was cut in a single session in Chicago in December 2015, and from the opening track, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges's "The Jeep Is Jumpin'," we have the instant feeling that we're in for a treat. Though the accent is always on the swinging nature of Brown's guitar playing, there's a wide variety of tunes on the album, from dazzling displays of technique and velocity like "Catch Me" to the funky and bluesy overtones of Hank Mobley's "Funk in Deep Freeze" to Latin excusions such as Johnny Mandel's "El Cajon" and the Jobim-Vinicius tune "Ela E Carioca," which is one of the highlights of the disc. The title track, "Direct Call" is a classy reading of "Appel Direct," taken from the Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli songbook and used as a vehicle to show off the seamless interplay between Brown's guitar and Kahn's piano. On the slower side we have "Relaxing," while the somewhat overlooked Hoagy Carmichael composition "One Morning in May" is taken at a faster pace. The strangely titled "Freak of the Week," with its hip, bluesy melody, is the perfect album closer, with some solid playing by Brown and some interesting contributions from Kahn. As noted, there's a lot of swing on the record, yet the most memorable track is a ballad. Russ Columbo's classic "Prisoner of Love," approached with gusto and elegance, showcases Brown's most lyrical, intimate side and is a pleasure to hear. Overall, this is an outstanding album that works as the perfect introduction to Andy Brown's exciting guitar artistry.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Jazz Flashes Videocast # 3 - Frank Sinatra Box Sets

As we're slowly approaching the holiday season, a new Frank Sinatra 4-CD/1-DVD box set has recently hit the stores. Entitled World on a String, it features live performances by Sinatra recorded between the 1950s and '80s in different locations around the world, including Monaco, Italy, Australia, Egypt, and the Dominican Republic. In many ways, it's a follow-up to the excellent series of sets issued in the past several years under the titles of Vegas, New York, and London, all of them offering unreleased concerts taped in those cities. Though I haven't gotten my hands on this brand-new set, it sounds like a great Yuletide present for the Sinatra fan, and its release has given me the idea to create this video where I discuss some of my favorite Sinatra box sets that have been made available over the years. You can watch this videocast here:

Frank Sinatra in Egypt, 1979
In the video I concentrate on the aforementioned city-specific sets, but I also go back to the beginning of Sinatra's career to review The Song Is You, which documents Young Blue Eyes' association with Tommy Dorsey between 1940 and 1942. I also discuss 1996's The Complete Capitol Singles Collection, which contains all of Sinatra's recordings for Capitol that were released as singles throughout the 1950s, and I talk about A Voice on Air, a beautifully presented set released last year that offers an overview of Sinatra the radio star between 1935 and 1955. I have deliberately left out the mammoth sets that include Sinatra's whole body of work for Columbia, Capitol, and Reprise in the belief that, though very recommendable, those are strictly for dedicated Sinatra aficionados. I hope you enjoy the video, whether you own these great boxes or not. In my opinion, they're all worth the money, and I like them all for different reasons that I hope to have explained successfully in the course of the videocast.

Frank Sinatra, the radio star in the 1940s

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Releases: Arthur Gunter's Excello Singles, 1954-61

Very few people remember bluesman Arthur Gunter today, and chances are that those who have heard of him have gotten to know his name via Elvis Presley. Indeed, Gunter wrote "Baby Let's Play House," which became one of Presley's earliest hits, but before Elvis got around to recording it, the song had already charted for its composer, who cut it for the Nashville-based Excello label in 1954. Besides the fact that it's an exciting, powerful title,  the song became a national hit partly because it was picked up and distributed by Chess Records, making it more widely available. Gunter spent the next several years attempting to recapture the excitement created by this song, but even though he made fine recordings such as "She's Mine All Mine" or "Honey Babe," none of his subsequent discs made the same impact. In fact, if Gunter is so obscure today, it's to a certain extent because his music hasn't been readily available on CD. A 1995 compilation of his Excello cuts has been out of print for a long time, but fortunately, the British label Jasmine Records has just issued Baby Let's Play House: The Complete Excello Singles, which gathers both sides of the 12 singles that Gunter made for the Nashville-based imprint between 1954 and 1961. These 24 tracks constitute the bulk of his recorded legacy, and often show the influence of great blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Slim Harpo, and another of Elvis's favorites, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

Born in 1926 precisely in Nashville, TN, Gunter began his career singing gospel in a family group, along with his brother Al Gunter, who would play guitar on many of Arthur's recordings for Excello. By 1954, when he signed his first record contract, Gunter was well known in the vibrant African-American music scene that, though sometimes neglected by critics, has always existed in the Music City, a location primarily associated with country music. On his first session for Excello (a label owned by the legendary impresario Ernie Young) Gunter cut his classic "Baby Let's Play House," which rose to number 12 on the R&B charts. The track epitomizes the Gunter sound, with its raw guitar and exciting vocals, and like many of the songs recorded by Gunter, was his own composition. Several more sessions followed in the next few years, without a great deal of success, although Gunter remained popular on the jukeboxes throughout the south. In 1958, his brother Al died tragically in the course of a barroom brawl, and it took Gunter two years to enter a recording studio again. By the time he resumed his career, in 1960, he was trying to cut slightly more commercial sides, including ballads like "Who Will Ever Move Me from You," and attempting to cash in on the new vogue for rock'n'roll that he'd helped usher in with "Baby Let's Play House." This never worked out, however, so Excello ended up dropping him in 1961, and five years later Gunter moved to Pontiac, MI, performing only occasionally. Gunter always regretted never having had the chance to shake Elvis's hand, but Presley's recording of "Baby Let's Play House" did provide the bluesman with some healthy royalty checks. By the time of his death, following a bout of pneumonia in 1976, when he was barely 49, Gunter was living comfortably in Michigan and had won $50,000 on the Michigan Lottery three years before. A unique bluesman, hopefully Arthur Gunter will finally come out of his current obscurity with the help of this very welcome Jasmine Records release.

Friday, October 21, 2016

New Reissues: Jan Lundgren Trio Plays the Music of Victor Young

Last month, the newly formed Fog Arts label began what is an ongoing series of digital reissues of Jan Lundgren albums that have been long out of print due to the demise of the record label for which they were originally cut. The first two are songbook packages that concentrate on the work of Victor Young and Jule Styne, two great composers who aren't usually the subject of such full-length projects by jazz musicians. A third album of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn tunes is slated for release next month, and it's our intention to devote one Jazz Flash to each of these and other forthcoming Lundgren reissues, beginning with The Jan Lundgren Trio Plays the Music of Victor Young. By the time the Lundgren-led trio (with Mattias Svensson on bass and Rasmus Kihlberg on drums) entered the studio in Copenhagen in 2000 and 2001 to record this tribute to Young, one of the most celebrated film composers of all time, the Swedish pianist was well established, with a series of fine albums (Swedish Standards, Cooking! At the Jazz Bakery, Something to Live For) and collaborations with legendary jazzmen such as Herb Geller, Bill Perkins, Conte Candoli, and Arne Domnérus, to cite just a few. Lundgren had traveled to the U.S. to perform and had recorded twice in NYC. After cutting a whole CD of Ellington originals for the now-defunct Sittel label, he began to concentrate on the work of Great American Songbook songwriters who don't usually receive as much attention as the Gershwins, Porters, Mercers, etc., and thus this album was born. The idea was, it seems, to focus on both Young's well-known songs and some more obscure items from his prolific output. As it happened, it didn't prove to be an easy task, as Lundgren himself has noted: "I couldn't unearth any modern sheet music songbooks for either composer [he refers to Styne as well], and Young was particularly neglected. I found that curious—and a little bit shocking . . . Yet I also found it appealing, because I wanted to play songs by writers who hadn't been done to death by everyone else."

Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren
Lundgren was fortunate to be able to enlist the help of three excellent American artists—singers Stacey Kent and Deborah Brown, who handle the vocals on several of the tracks, and, particularly, the outstanding tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. They were all apparently touring European cities at the time and joined Lundgren's trio in Denmark on some of these sessions, to which they contributed in a major way. New Jersey-born Kent bookends the album with pensive readings of the classic ballads "Ghost of a Chance" and "My Foolish Heart," and she's also featured on a bouncy "Street of Dreams." Brown, who's from Kansas City, approaches the beautiful "A Hundred Years from Today" in a delicate manner, very much in tune with Lundgren's piano on that track, and then hastens the tempo on "Beautiful Love" and a scat-filled "Stella by Starlight." Griffin, one of the greatest tenorists in jazz history, shows off his mastery on two very different selections: the uptempo "A Weaver of Dreams," possibly inspired by the John Coltrane version, and the heartfelt ballad "When I Fall in Love," which taps into Griffin's most intimate persona. The latter is one of the highlights from the album, prompting these telling words from Lundgren: "When we'd finished the take, I noticed a tear in the corner of [Griffin's] eye. 'I was thinking of Ben,' Johnny quietly told me, referring of course to the great Ben Webster. It was a very emotional moment." And it is, indeed, a rendition that would have made the Brute proud!

Johnny Griffin
The trio is featured on the other five songs, which again range from Young classics to lesser-known compositions. Lundgren's piano shines on the uptempo "Sweet Sue (Just You)," one of Young's most enduring offerings, and "Love Letters" is given a Latin treatment that proves to be a good vehicle for Svensson's bass. "Song of Delilah" may sound like an odd choice at first, but its hip R&B arrangement actually turns it into one of the most memorable moments on the album. Very few probably remember the Ray Milland movie for which Young wrote "Golden Earrings," but the tune is lovely, and Lundgren treats it gently and with quite a bit of easy-going swing. Finally, "Alone at Last" is another of those obscurities that Lundgren is so adept at digging up, a film ballad that lends itself perfectly to the trio's relaxed approach. Overall, this is undoubtedly one of the best entries in Lundgren's ever-growing discography, and true jazz fans should be thankful to Fog Arts for making its content available again as digital downloads and on all major streaming platforms. We look forward to seeing the rest of these long-deleted albums back in circulation after so many years.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Drummer Man: Gene Krupa on Verve, 1956

More than merely a jazz drummer, Chicago-born Gene Krupa was a drumming showman, one of the first swing musicians to bring attention to his instrument as a vehicle for exciting, bombastic solos. Krupa's big band, which featured a host of outstanding soloists, was one of the most powerful of the Swing Era, and he was possibly the first drummer in jazz history to rise to major stardom. But by the time he formed his first big band in the late 1930s, Krupa had been around for quite a while, as a studio musician in the 1920s and '30s and as a noted member of the Benny Goodman orchestra. In his book Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow talks at length about the early years of Krupa's career, and while with Goodman, the drummer also participated in recordings by the famous BG Trio and Quartet. His appearance at Goodman's epoch-making Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 was extremely successful—his high-octane drumming on "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)" during that concert was particularly memorable—and so he soon departed to form his own orchestra. Throughout the 1940s, Krupa had hit after hit with classics such as "Let Me Off Uptown," "Drum Boogie," the self-referential "Opus One," and "Thanks for the Boogie Ride," to name but a few, and his band was known for the quality of the sidemen, including Shorty Sherock, Sam Donahue, Don Fagerquist, Charlie Ventura, and most of all, trumpeter Roy Eldridge and vocalist Anita O'Day. The latter two brought even more colorful, exciting sounds to an already outstanding orchestra during their tenures with the band.

Anita O'Day and Roy Eldridge

It didn't help, though, that Krupa had to face a short jail sentence on drug charges in 1943, yet upon his release, he rebuilt his band and kept going until around 1951. This late-'40s orchestra occasionally featured arrangements by Gerry Mulligan and at times embraced the new sounds of bebop. The 1950s saw Krupa working in small-group settings and touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic packages, and towards the end of the decade, Hollywood produced a respectable movie about his life starring Sal Mineo, predictably titled The Gene Krupa Story. In 1956, Krupa cut a big band album for Verve entitled Drummer Man, fronting an orchestra full of great names, such as trombonists J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Jimmy Cleveland, altoist Hal McKusick, tenorist Eddie Shu, pianist Dave McKenna, and guitarist Barry Galbraith. It was a reunion of sorts, since Roy Eldridge and Anita O'Day share the spotlight with the drummer, and the song list consists mostly of remakes of Krupa classics like "Let Me Off Uptown," "Rockin' Chair," "Opus One," "Drum Boogie," and "Boogie Blues." The arrangements are by Quincy Jones, and although perhaps there could be a little more room for Krupa to solo, the band sounds tightly knit, the solos are exciting, and everyone seems to be having a wonderful time. "Leave Us Leap" is a perfect example of Krupa's energetic drumming propelling the band forward, and on his own composition, "Wire Brush Stomp," the drummer picks up the brushes and never misses a beat. "That's What You Think" is the only slow number, with O'Day singing mostly wordless lines, and "After You've Gone" is an appropriate closing, a vehicle for the trumpet of Roy Eldridge, who is as exuberant as usual on these sessions. The liner notes call this "a happy album," and indeed it is! Krupa slowed down the pace in the 1960s due to several health problems and passed away in New York City in 1973, at age 64.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Jazz Flashes Videocast # 2 - Herbie Nichols

Born in New York in 1919, pianist and composer Herbie Nichols was one of those jazz musicians who were so ahead of their time that their art was never fully recognized for what it was worth during their lifetime. Though Nichols became a cult figure of sorts after his death from leukemia in 1963, throughout his life he didn't get to lead his own groups too often and was mostly limited to playing alongside musicians who were far less talented than he was. There were exceptions to this, of course—Nichols worked with some fine jazzmen such as Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Illinois Jacquet, and Lucky Thompson, but these collaborations went mostly unrecorded, and the 1940s and '50s saw him performing in traditional dixieland contexts instead of the forward-looking kind of bebop that he preferred. In my new Jazz Flashes Videocast I briefly discuss the life, career, and musical legacy of Herbie Nichols. You may watch the video here:

Describing Nichols as a misunderstood, underrated jazzman actually sounds like an understatement. Not very many musicians recorded his compositions during his life (pianist Mary Lou Williams was an exception to the rule) and his recorded output is rather meager. In the video I mention two releases that are absolutely essential: The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Herbie Nichols is a three-CD set that contains all the sides Nichols cut for Blue Note in 1956, all of them in a trio setting, accompanied by Teddy Kotick or Al McKibbon on bass and Max Roach or Art Blakey on drums. In 1957 he led a session for Bethlehem Records, also fronting a trio, that was issued as Love, Gloom, Cash, Love. He was accompanied by George Duvivier on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums. The former, including 18 alternate takes, is the perfect introduction to Nichols's music, while the latter is also worth purchasing.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Duke Ellington at the Rainbow Grille, 1967

While Duke Ellington often led sessions with small groups, particularly in the early years of his career, unfortunately not too many of his recordings in an octet setting have survived. The Duke Ellington Octet at the Rainbow Grille, released by Gambit Records in 2006, presents one of them, a very interesting date at New York's Rainbow Grille from August 17, 1967, preserved for posterity due to the fact that it was broadcast by the CBS radio network, back in the days when the networks were still interested in offering high-quality live jazz to their listenership. The first five tunes on this album are apparently rehearsals that the sound engineer caught on tape while adjusting the balances in preparation for the broadcast. The first of these finds the Duke at the piano, wistfully playing a medley of two of his lesser-known compositions, "Heaven" and "Le Sucrier Velours," and in the background we can hear people chatting and glasses clinking, which suggests that nobody seems to be paying much attention to the performance. The whole octet begins to warm up next, using for that purpose classic Ellington numbers such as "In a Sentimental Mood" (which you can hear in the video at the end of this post), "Azure," and "I'm Beginning to See the Light," as well as a rocking tune called "Rock the Clock."

Then the broadcast proper begins, after an announcer urges the crowd to applaud as the band goes on the air, and the sound improves somewhat. The octet is made up of star soloists from within the Ellington orchestra, namely Cat Anderson on trumpet, Lawrence Brown on trombone, Johnny Hodges on alto, Paul Gonsalves on tenor, and Harry Carney on baritone, supported by a rhythm section that includes the Duke himself on piano, bassist John Lamb, and drummer Steve Little. This reduced lineup called for new arrangements, which in the hands of all these giants sound rich and full of excitement, giving all the horns plenty of chances to shine. The set list features many Ellington and Billy Strayhorn standards, such as "Take the 'A' Train," "Satin Doll," "Sophisticated Lady," "Passion Flower," "Solitude," and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," as well as Juan Tizol's "Perdido," which is ably performed here by Cat Anderson. Ellington himself, of course, is heavily spotlighted on piano, and his playing, as usual, is never less than superb. This is definitely a very welcome release, with personnel information and well-written liner notes that could, however, be a little more detailed. It appears that several other performances from this Ellington octet engagement exist, and judging by the quality of the music we can hear on this CD, they all deserve to be issued commercially.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Chet Baker's 1950s Trumpet and Vocal Sides on Pacific Jazz

Being among the first jazz records I ever heard, Chet Baker's trumpet-and-vocal sides for Pacific Jazz of the early- to mid-1950s will always have a special place in my heart. But beyond the purely personal, these recordings, made at various studios in Los Angeles between 1953 and 1956, are some of the most perfectly crafted sides of Baker's celebrated career. Baker is definitely a singer like no other: in the liner notes to Let's Get Lost: The Best of Chet Baker Sings, a 1989 CD containing 20 of Baker's Pacific Jazz vocal tracks, critic Will Friedwald describes his approach to vocalizing as "that rara avis that's a great deal more disarming than most items which demand that adjective." Disarming is, indeed, a very appropriate way to describe both Baker's playing and singing. His singing is never exuberant and always self-contained, revealing a kind of melancholy and shyness that's appealing precisely because, as Friedwald notes, it's emotionally disarming. When he sings, perhaps more so than when he plays, Baker emphasizes his most vulnerable side, almost whispering languidly sometimes, as though he were being overheard by the microphone. In this sense, Baker is more of a crooner than one might think at first. Unlike when he's playing his trumpet, when he's vocalizing, Baker seldom strays too far away from the melody and always succeeds in putting across the lyrics in a most effective way.

On most of the 20 tracks of this best-of vocal compilation, Baker is on vocals and trumpet (his obbligatos are sometimes overdubbed), leading a quartet that also includes Russ Freeman on piano and occasionally celesta, Carson Smith on bass, and Bob Neel on drums, although on some of the tunes we get to hear other musicians such as bassists Joe Mondragon and Jimmy Bond, and drummers Shelly Manne, Peter Littman, and Lawrence Marable. As expected, the repertoire draws from the Great American Songbook (the Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, &c.) but many of the songs come courtesy of Hollywood songwriters such as Johnny Burke, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Buddy DeSylva. Baker seems to have taken many a cue from Frank Sinatra in these early years when his record label was still trying to take advantage of the fact that he was, well, rather easy on the eye, and not just on the ear. As a matter of fact, a surprising majority of the songs on this compilation are somehow related to The Voice, some of them ("Time After Time," "It's Always You," "Daybreak," "I Fall in Love Too Easily") even going back to Sinatra's years on Columbia and with Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. Of course, "My Funny Valentine" is the quintessential Baker vocal record, with its sparse introduction and its introspective vocals and lovely trumpet solo, but there are other Baker classics here, such as "But Not for Me" (taken at a rather brisk tempo, with a memorable trumpet introduction), "Just Friends," "Let's Get Lost," "Long Ago and Far Away," "The Thrill Is Gone," and "That Old Feeling." The rest of musicians back Baker in a most sympathetic way, and pianist Freeman proves to be just as important to the overall sound of the proceedings as Baker himself. Without a doubt, these 20 classic sides demonstrate that singing was an important factor in Baker's rise to prominence in the 1950s, and it was something he clearly enjoyed doing, since he would keep vocalizing almost right up to the end of his career.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Jazz Flash News: R.I.P. Irish Jazz Guitarist Louis Stewart (1944-2016)

My friend Guy Jones, of Stockholm, Sweden, recently alerted me to the passing of Irish jazz guitar legend Louis Stewart, who died on August 20. He was 72, and though not as well known in the U.S. as in Europe, he was well respected on both sides of the Atlantic by people in the know. Throughout his long career, he recorded with jazz greats such as Tubby Hayes, George Shearing, Joe Williams, Peter Ind, and J.J. Johnson, to name but a few. Stewart spent a big chunk of his life and career in his homeland, which perhaps may help explain why he wasn't better known stateside. From the few recordings I've heard by Stewart, it becomes immediately clear that he displayed a very exciting style, characterized by his dazzling speed and his flawless technique. He recorded quite extensively as a leader, starting in the mid-1970s, and in 1998, more than two decades after releasing his first album, he was recognized by Dublin's Trinity College with an honorary doctorate in music, a well-deserved accolade for a man who devoted his whole life to jazz.

Stewart was born in Waterford, in the Irish province of Munster, in January 1944, but John Chilton, in his book Who's Who of British Jazz, tells us that he was actually raised in Dublin. Stewart started on piano and concentrated on guitar in his teens, playing with several outfits and even touring the U.S. with reedman Jim Doherty in 1961. He relocated to London in 1968, which is when he started to work extensively with saxophonist Tubby Hayes. His versatility soon made him a much sought-after sideman, and in the 1970s he spent time playing with renowned jazzmen like Benny Goodman, Peter Ind, and George Shearing, as well as becoming a member of Harry South's big band and accompanying Blossom Dearie on a tour of Australia. In the '80s Stewart worked with Stephane Grappelli and also led his own groups off and on until very recently, appearing all over Europe, often unaccompanied. His debut album, 1975's Louis the First, is a good example of Stewart in his prime and features him in trio, duo, and solo settings, tackling standards such as "All the Things You Are," "Body and Soul," "Autumn Leaves," and "Here's That Rainy Day." Though not many of his records are easy to find in the U.S., his trio sides for MPS with Shearing and Norwegian bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen are available in the box set The MPS Trio Sessions, and his guitar duets with Martin Taylor are also highly regarded by critics. Any of these three options constitute good introductions to the very attractive sound of a guitarist who deserves wider recognition this side of the pond.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jazz Flashes Videocast # 1 - Bobby Hutcherson; Toots Thielemans; Dempsey Wright; Red Norvo

Toots Thielemans (1922-2016)
A few months ago, a couple of friends suggested to me that I should start a podcast or a videocast about jazz to post on YouTube and make available periodically in this blog. I gave it some thought, and the idea took me back to the time when I used to host a radio show with my wife in Nashville, TN, so I liked the suggestion right away. However, several personal things and projects I've been involved with this summer didn't leave me almost any free time to devote to planning the videocast. In the last couple of weeks, before the semester started at the university where I teach, I enjoyed a little more peace and quiet than usual, so I decided to give the videocast idea a try. Here's the result, the first installment of the Jazz Flashes Videocast:

On this edition of the videocast, I briefly discuss the careers of two recently deceased jazz greats, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and harmonica/guitar player Toots Thielemans. Moreover, I recommend two lesser-known albums that I've been playing quite a bit lately: The Wright Approach, by Oklahoma guitarist Dempsey Wright, and Red Plays the Blues, featuring an all-star group led by the great vibraphonist Red Norvo. I hope you enjoy this new section of Jazz Flashes, and if you do, it's my intention to create similar videocasts in the future, and hopefully do a more polished job than I did on this pilot installment!

NOTE: You may click on the names of each artist to access a track by that artist.

Bobby Hutcherson (1941-2016)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Cooking the Blues: The Buddy DeFranco Quintet on Verve, 1954

Buddy DeFranco
A graduate of the Big Band Era who played in orchestras led by Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco was responsible for bringing the clarinet into modernity. In the mid-1940s, at a time when the saxophone was quickly overtaking the clarinet as the most popular instrument in jazz, DeFranco was one of the few musicians to use the clarinet in a bebop context. Thanks mostly to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, the instrument had been extremely prominent during the heyday of swing, but the speed and complexity of bebop suddenly made it less than ideal for the new style. Taking many a cue from Charlie Parker, DeFranco worked hard to develop the technical ability required to play bebop clarinet in a successful and exciting manner. Born in Camden, NJ, in 1923, DeFranco was an almost obsessively disciplined musician who was constantly practicing and seeking new ways to improve his playing. One of the most forward-looking jazzmen of the '40s and with ample experience working with large combinations, from the '50s on he preferred to play in small-group settings, collaborating with the likes of Count Basie, Art Blakey, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson, among several others. DeFranco devoted his whole life to music, recording and touring regularly and often winning the yearly polls of the most renowned jazz publications. By the time of his passing in 2014, he'd recorded dozens of albums, the invaluable legacy of a man who was always striving to innovate.

His stint on Verve in the mid-'50s yielded some of the most interesting projects DeFranco ever tackled, in particular two albums he cut in a quintet setting in 1954—Cooking the Blues and Sweet & Lovely, recently reissued on CD as a two-fer by Poll Winners Records. Both of them are delightful outings that find DeFranco on clarinet in the company of pianist Sonny Clark (who also plays organ on some tracks), guitarist Tal Farlow, bassist Gene Wright, and drummer Bobby White. The concept behind both albums is pretty much the same: clever boppish renditions of well-known standards along with one original per LP (Wright's "Cooking the Blues" on the former and Clark's "Moe" on the latter). There's an unmistakable warmth to the music, and the rapport between the five musicians makes for some pleasant listening. No wonder that both discs received five-star ratings from Down Beat upon their release in 1958, four years after the sessions actually took place. Of course, the two of them are essential, but in my opinion, the more bluesy component on Cooking the Blues makes it stand out. It includes beautifully relaxed readings of "I Can't Get Started," "Stardust," and "Little Girl Blue," and the title track, based on a catchy riff dreamed up by Wright, offers all participants a good chance for some inspired soloing. "How About You" is taken at a rather brisk pace and finds DeFranco tirelessly playing around with the melody, while "Indian Summer," played at a tempo that's faster than usual, makes for a very appropriate closing. Unfortunately, the quintet wouldn't make any more records after these sessions (Clark died only nine years after, in 1963), yet these two LPs are a clear testament to the enduring appeal of this band's work.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Earl Hines on Impulse, 1966

Earl "Fatha" Hines
One of the most important, innovative pianists in jazz history, Earl "Fatha" Hines influenced virtually every keyboard player who ever had a chance to listen to him, among them many greats such as Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson. Born in Duquesne, near Pittsburgh, PA, in 1905, Hines was playing piano professionally by the 1920s, as a member of several different bands, and working off and on with the likes of Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong, with whom he participated in some of the groundbreaking Hot Five sessions of the late '20s. A few years later, when it came time for Hines to lead his own orchestras, he proved to have a good ear for recognizing talent, and his outfits were always full of excellent musicians such as Trummy Young, Budd Johnson, Ray Nance, and a vocalist who would soon turn into a jazz/pop idol—Billy Eckstine. Critics have often hailed Hines as one of the first modern pianists, He never failed to swing with ease, and his bluesy style was definitely swinging, forward-looking, and flamboyant, making him one of the direct links between the old school of stride piano and the more modern sounds of swing. Hines survived the 1950s by inflecting his swinging style with the strains of Dixieland jazz and spent several years catering to the followers of the decade's Dixieland revival. And that takes us to the album we're reviewing today, perhaps one of the lesser-known entries in his prolific and enormously rich discography.

Cut for Impulse on two different dates in January 1966, the record is called Once Upon a Time, yet it might very well have been titled something like "Earl Hines Meets the Ellingtonians," since on these seven tracks he's surrounded by a host of Duke Ellington sidemen, though the Duke himself is absent. The collective personnel features, among others, great musicians like trumpeters Cat Anderson, Ray Nance, and Clark Terry; trombonist Lawrence Brown; reedmen Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, and Pee Wee Russell; bassist Aaron Bell; and drummers Sonny Greer and Elvin Jones. As critic Stanley Dance tells us in the liner notes, the idea was "to bring together past and present members of the Duke Ellington orchestra" and have them play alongside Hines and other greats like Russell and Elvin Jones. And the concept works perfectly: the material includes Ellington standards such as "Black and Tan Fantasy" and an explosive reading of "Cottontail," and each solo that unfolds is pure bliss. Both Hodges (the title track and the closer, "Hash Brown") and Hines himself (the lovely "You Can Depend on Me") showcase their talents as composers, and selections like Lionel Hampton's "The Blues in My Flat" (with some inspired singing by Nance) place the accent on the blues. The beautiful ballad "Fantastic, That's You" receives a quartet treatment by Hines, Hamilton, Bell, and Jones, and the Fatha sounds extremely comfortable both in a small-group setting and within the larger band, leading everyone forward with energy and authority. When it comes to albums by Hines, there's evidently a wealth of material to choose from, but this mid-'60s meeting with the Ellingtonians should be high on the list of must-haves by the Fatha.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

John Coltrane's Giant Steps at the Nashville Jazz Workshop

Aylor, Finnie, Nardone, and Aliquo
When one lives in rural northwest Tennessee, there aren't quite enough opportunities available to enjoy good live jazz. However, just a couple of hours to the east there's the Nashville Jazz Workshop, on Adams St., in the Germantown area of the Tennessee capital. The Workshop is a haven for jazz fans and musicians in a city that's usually better known for other kinds of music. Last Saturday night, as part of a series focusing on great jazz albums, the Workshop presented a quartet led by tenorist Don Aliquo and featuring pianist Jody Nardone, drummer Marcus Finnie, and bassist Jack Aylor. The band, which got together exclusively for this gig, played all the tracks on John Coltrane's classic 1959 LP Giant Steps, one of the most celebrated of Trane's fabulous discography. I attended the early show (at 6:00 p.m.; there was also a late show at 8:30) with my wife, my daughter and some close relatives and enjoyed some fantastic music played to a few dozen people sitting at tables in a small, welcoming venue that seats around 100. Pittsburgh-born tenor saxophonist Aliquo has lived in Nashville for almost 20 years and is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, as well as a much in-demand jazzman around the Music City and all over the country. As the albums he's recorded so far suggest, he is influenced not only by Coltrane, but also by other sax greats like Dexter Gordon and Stanley Turrentine. His flawless technique and uncanny ability to create engaging solos at a breakneck speed make him the perfect choice to handle Coltrane's complex, highly demanding compositions. Yet Aliquo can also play in a sensitive sensual manner, as he did on the ballad "Naima," and as some of the tunes from his recent collaboration with pianist Beegie Adair (Too Marvelous for Words) demonstrate.

This blog's author with Don Aliquo
Aliquo was in fine company last Saturday at the Workshop. New Jersey native Nardone has also worked with countless jazz legends and displays an attractive, energetic piano style that worked well both in support of Aliquo's tenor and when it came time to solo. The wistful introduction he played on "Naima" was one of the highlights of the concert. Finnie, who hails from Memphis, is a very accomplished drummer with a great deal of experience both in and outside of jazz. His dynamic approach and spectacular drumming constantly met with the general approval and applause of the audience and helped propel the quartet's inspired performances. Finally, Aylor, by far the youngest musician on the stage on Saturday night, and currently a jazz student at New York's Columbia University, is quickly becoming one of the most promising young jazz bassists in his hometown of Nashville. Aylor has a natural sense of rhythm and blended perfectly well with the rest of the rhythm section, handling Paul Chambers's often complex bass solos with great ease. The evening began with a sprightly version of the title track, which set the tone for the rest of the concert, with Aliquo leading the quartet in an authoritative but always generous fashion, stepping to one side of the stage whenever he wasn't soloing in order to allow the rest of the musicians to take the spotlight. Though the idea was to play tribute to the legendary LP, the band didn't try to merely imitate the great Coltrane quartet, but rather they reinterpreted its timeless tunes (from "Cousin Mary" to the flurry of notes that is "Countdown" to a spirited reading of "Spiral" to the intriguing "Syeeda's Song Flute" to "Naima," the only slow number on the album) with great reverence and respect. Showing he's also an educator, Aliquo even took the time to briefly introduce some of the tracks, providing a little background information that added to the audience's enjoyment of the music that was being presented. The evening came to a close not long after a rousing drum solo by Finnie on "Mr. P.C.," the bluesy album closer. In short, it was a lovely event at the Nashville Jazz Workshop that served not only to showcase a magnificent live performance of a legendary album but also to introduce some of us in the audience to four musicians of different backgrounds and ages brought together by a common love of classic jazz.

The quartet on stage at the Nashville Jazz Workshop

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Clora Bryant on Mode Records, 1957

Influenced by the likes of Roy Eldridge, Harry James, Charlie Shavers, and Dizzy Gillespie, for whom she professed a lifelong admiration, Texas-born Clora Bryant was one of the few female trumpeters who felt equally comfortable as an instrumentalist and a vocalist. In fact, her singing is somewhat akin to her playing: she sounds swinging and daring on uptempo numbers and wistful and restrained on ballads. Born in the small Texas town of Denison in 1927, Bryant showed an interest in the trumpet early on, and after graduating from high school she began touring with various all-girl bands. By the mid-1940s she'd relocated to California, where she had the chance to play with prominent names such as Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon, and even Charlie Parker. At different moments in her career she played in Las Vegas and graced the trumpet sections of big bands led by Duke Ellington, Billy Williams, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Stan Kenton. In an interview with writer Linda Dahl, Bryant has discussed the obstacles she's had to face in her professional career, many of them related to her gender and her race, as well as her choice of instrument: "Being a black woman and playing trumpet—that's three things I consider against me. If I played piano, I don't think sex or race would enter into it. With the wind instruments, though, there's competition, period. No matter what color or what sex, there's a lot of competition in the trumpet section!"

In 1957, Bryant cut an album for the small Mode label entitled Gal with a Horn, which is the only one of her records currently available on CD (it's been reissued by V.S.O.P. Records). With a beautiful cover featuring a portrait of Bryant in black and blue, the album is a little too short at only eight tracks, and presents her playing trumpet and singing in the company of pianist Roger Fleming, bassist Ben Tucker, and drummer Bruz Freeman. This quartet is augmented by Walter Benton on tenor sax and Normie Faye on trumpet on some of the tracks. The program alternates between fast and slow numbers, all of them standards, showcasing Bryant's vocals and trumpet playing and with plenty of room for solos. On the album opener, "Gypsy in My Soul," Bryant plays with the melody for two full vocal choruses and then closes off the performance with a Gillespie-influenced trumpet solo. Her horn shines on a relaxed reading of "Makin' Whoopee" that features a fine piano solo by Fleming. "Man with a Horn," the tune referenced in the album title, is one of the moodiest performances on the set, while "Sweet Georgia Brown" has room for contributions from both Fleming and Benton. Everyone seems to be having a ball with a version of "Tea for Two" set to a cha-cha beat, followed by two Rodgers and Hart tunes ("This Can't Be Love" and "Little Girl Blue") that are tailor-made for Bryant. On "S'posin'," Bryant carries most of the weight, thus bringing the record to a close in style and proving that, though sadly under-recorded, she's an appealing trumpeter who deserves more critical attention.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Pepper Adams on Regent, 1957

Despite the title of the only album Pepper Adams cut for Regent (a subsidiary of Savoy Records), 1957's The Cool Sound of Pepper Adams, the baritone saxophonist always favored a decidedly hard bop approach over the cool sounds of West Coast jazz. But no doubt the popularity of the so-called cool school at the time was what led the label to use that title. The disc is absolutely fantastic, comprised of four long tracks (none of them shorter than seven minutes) that offer ample room for lengthy solos by everyone involved, and the music flows freely and easily. Closely linked with the Detroit music scene of the 1940s and '50s, Adams was born in 1930 in Highland Park, MI, and went through a difficult childhood before finding his way in life through music. He played tenor sax and clarinet before settling on the baritone and eventually becoming an innovator on that instrument with a hard-driving style that set him apart from cooler practitioners such as Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff. Throughout his long career, Adams recorded in countless different settings, from big bands to small groups, and alongside too many jazz legends to keep track of all of them. Some of his most satisfying collaborations include recordings with Thad Jones, Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, and Jimmy Knepper, though these are merely a few examples among several other that could be named.

The Cool Sound is one of Adams's earliest recorded efforts, yet this quintet session cut in November 1957 perfectly illustrates his direct, powerful approach to the baritone sax and shows how starkly different his style is from that of better-known contemporary Mulligan. Accompanied by Hank Jones on piano, George Duvivier on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, and Bernard McKinney on euphonium, an instrument that is seldom used in a jazz context, Adams uses the four tunes as vehicles to prove that the baritone can be used in highly inventive ways in a bop context without necessarily having to take a trip out west. What's more, though the accent is on Adams's baritone, the generous length of the four tracks allows the rest of the band to shine as well, and McKinney's euphonium sounds surprisingly effective. As implied by its title, "Bloos, Blooze, Blues" is a blues-inflected melody that shows Adams is extremely comfortable playing in that idiom. The next two compositions (Barry Harris's "Seein' Red" and McKinney's "Like... What Is This?") pick up the pace somewhat and include lovely solos by all participants. Adams's own "Skippy" is a strong closer, based on an interesting melody introduced in unison by the baritone sax and the euphonium and then taken as an excuse for some colorful improvisation by Duvivier, Hank Jones (very restrained and elegant), Adams, and McKinney. The whole album is extremely enjoyable, one of those cases where the whole is indeed as satisfying as the sum of its parts. After a prolific career and some constant tireless touring throughout the United States, Europe, and other corners of the world, Pepper Adams died from lung cancer in New York City in 1986. His large recorded legacy is impressive to say the least and won't disappoint anyone who decides to dig deep into it—and this late-'50s outing isn't a bad place to start at all!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Julian Priester on Riverside, 1960

Anyone playing jazz trombone in the 1950s and '60s must have felt that the shadow of J.J. Johnson was looming large, and there were only two possible ways to deal with that—either take a tip from J.J. and imitate his style or else attempt to stray away from J.J.'s example and create a style of one's own. Julian Priester went for the latter. Born in Chicago in 1935, Priester attended DuSable High School, where he became interested in the trombone, embarking on a professional career as a jazz musician upon graduation. Despite the fact that he isn't as well remembered today as he should be, he's enjoyed a long career and has had the chance to prove his versatility playing in different contexts, from bop to R&B to fusion. He's also devoted a great deal of his time to higher education and has played alongside great jazzmen such as Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, and Charlie Haden, to name but just a few. In fact, he's recorded more often as a sideman (and an exciting, very dependable one at that) than as a leader, which probably accounts for his relative obscurity. From the very beginning, two of his assets were his ability to deliver inventive trombone solos and his thirst for playing in as many different settings as possible, always succeeding in bringing a fresh, personal approach to the proceedings, whatever they may be.

Around 1959, after spending part of the '50s within the ranks of orchestras led by Sun Ra and Lionel Hampton, Priester joined Max Roach's band, and it was while with the great drummer that he cut two fantastic albums for Riverside, both of them in 1960—Keep Swingin' and Spiritsville. We're concentrating here on the former, recorded in a single session in New York City on January 11, 1960, but fortunately both of them have been reissued as a two-fer by Fresh Sound Records that makes for a great introduction to Priester's music. On this date, the trombonist is accompanied by tenorist Jimmy Heath, pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Elvin Jones, a stellar combo that doesn't disappoint. The result is an excellent bop album, full of swing and appealing solos pretty much from everyone involved, though the spotlight is obviously on Priester. Jimmy Heath contributes not only many outstanding solos but also the album opener, "24-Hour Leave," which sets the pace for what's to come. Besides some lovely playing by Priester, Charles Davis's "1239A" features a fine piano solo by the quietly elegant Flanagan. The album only includes two standards: the medium-tempo "Just Friends" sounds as though it had been inspired in part by Chet Baker's classic Pacific version, and the warm, sensitive reading of "Once in a While" (the only ballad on the LP) ranks as one of the highlights. The rest of the disc showcases Priester's talent as a composer, with four originals ranging from the bluesy "Bob T's Blues" to the more boppish and swinging "The End," "Julian's Tune," and "Under the Surface." Priester carries most of the weight on these originals, though he's superbly aided by everyone else. Although they're only his first two outings as a leader, Keep Swingin' and Spiritsville represent some of Priester's best work and should pique the listener's interest in seeking out the dozens of other albums on which the trombonist appears as a sideman.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Art Van Damme and Jo Stafford, 1957

Though the accordion may not be the first instrument one thinks about when considering jazz, Michigan-born Art Van Damme is definitely the first name that comes to mind when discussing the accordion in such a context. Born in the small town of Norway, MI, in 1920, Van Damme developed an outstanding technique and became one of the foremost innovators on the instrument. He began his professional career in the late 1930s by forming a trio that would eventually evolve into a quintet, and in that new setting, which included a rhythm section and vibes in addition to his accordion, he made several dozen albums between the '50s and the '80s. Although perhaps not remembered by many these days, Van Damme enjoyed a long career and was able to build quite a following in Japan and Europe, where he performed frequently, as some albums recorded live in Scandinavia prove. He lived in retirement in California for several years before his death, although he made occasional live appearances up until the end of his life. He passed away in 2010, leaving behind a rich legacy of recordings, many of which are fortunately available on CD.

In 1957, Van Damme and his quintet teamed up with Jo Stafford for an album of "some of the finest songs of recent years," as the liner notes announce. Released on Columbia, Once Over Lightly marks one of the few times the accordionist collaborated with a vocalist on record, although he'd backed up many a singer on radio by the time of these sessions. By the 1950s, Stafford was an established pop star, one of the best to come out of the Big Band Era. She'd risen to prominence as a featured vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra in the early '40s (both solo and as a member of the Pied Pipers) and was known for her perfect pitch, her jazzy approach, and her versatility. On this album, Stafford's voice blends perfectly with the elegant, classy sound of the quintet led by Van Damme, and the repertoire is made up of the kind of standards that she could handle effortlessly. From the opening track, "Almost Like Being in Love," it seems obvious that Stafford is extremely comfortable in this setting, and although there's room for short accordion, guitar, and vibes solos here and there, the spotlight is clearly on the vocalist. Accordingly, the arrangements vary between slow and medium (the tempos that suit Stafford best), as the singer turns out fine performances of "The Lady Is a Tramp," "A Foggy Day," "These Foolish Things," "But Not for Me," and "One for My Baby." Another standout is "Autumn Leaves," with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer, which, as the liner notes observe, is the newest song of the bunch. To delve deeper into Van Damme's very pleasant style, one should also seek out albums like Accordion a la Mode and A Perfect Match (on this one he's paired up with guitarist Johnny Smith), but this lesser-known collaboration with Stafford offers a good example of his sympathetic backing of a legendary pop/jazz singer.