Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Richie Kamuca Quartet & Octet, 1957

Although those who still remember him today tend to identify him with the West Coast sound, tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca was actually born in Philadelphia in 1930. Initially influenced by the stylings of the great Lester Young, Kamuca was able to develop a cool-toned sound that was all his own and highly recognizable. He began his professional career in the Roy Eldridge orchestra, and Eldridge would always remain one of his favorite musicians, with whom he'd stay in touch through the years. In the 1950s he worked with Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, and with the latter he made recordings as part of the famous Four Brothers, though he never achieved the recognition of fellow saxophonists Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. After settling in the West Coast, he cut a few fine albums that are still quite obscure today, perhaps because they were made for small labels like Mode and Hi-Fi. He was even paired with another notable tenorman, Bill Perkins, for a 1956 session that yielded the Pacific Jazz album Tenors Head-On, but in part his relative obscurity could be attributed to the fact that he appeared as a sideman on countless sessions led by the likes of Chet Baker, Marty Paich, and Mel Lewis, among others, but made very few records as a leader.

Most of Kamuca's most valuable work as a leader, though, was recorded in 1957, when he cut two albums that have been reissued by Fresh Sound Records on a 2010 CD entitled Tenor Ahead: Richie Kamuca Quartet and Octet. This includes Jazz Erotica (originally released with a rather kitschy cover featuring a picture of a nude model) and The Richie Kamuca Quartet, both recorded in Los Angeles. The former includes a few tracks ("Blue Jazz," "Stella by Starlight," "Linger Awhile," "It's You or No One") that find Kamuca in a quartet setting alongside Vince Guaraldi on piano, Monty Budwig on bass, and Stan Levey on drums. On some of the tracks ("Angel Eyes," "I Hadn't Anyone Till You," "The Things We Did Last Summer," for instance), this quartet becomes an octet with the addition of Bill Holman on baritone sax, Frank Rosolino on trombone, and Conte Candoli and Ed Leddy on trumpets, with Holman himself handling the arrangements and achieving a fuller sound. On the latter album, we find Kamuca in a quartet setting all the way, featuring Levey on drums again, but this time Carl Perkins is on piano and Leroy Vinnegar is on bass. Though there's only one Kamuca original ("Rain Drain"), this album is the most musically satisfying of the two and boasts a lovely uptempo version of "Just Friends" and wistful readings of the ballad standards "What's New" and "My One and Only Love." Throughout the 1960s and '70s, Kamuca did a great deal of studio work and became a member of the band on the Merv Griffin TV show, a job that he kept until his death from cancer in 1977. He also worked with drummer Shelly Manne and appears on the famous series of albums that the Manne band recorded live at the Blackhawk in San Francisco. Kamuca still had time to collaborate again with Roy Eldridge, and right before the end of his life, he made three fantastic albums for Concord that have yet to be reissued on CD. As already pointed out, Kamuca is one of many talented jazz musicians for whom recognition has been elusive partly because of their primary role as sidemen. But in his case, there's no doubt that the quality of his meager work as a leader is still begging for rediscovery, and hopefully this Fresh Sound reissue will help.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Jazz Flash News: Sarah Vaughan Stamp

The United States Postal Service has recently announced that a stamp honoring the artistic legacy of vocalist Sarah Vaughan will be put into circulation in 2016. A part of the ongoing Music Icons series, the stamp features an oil painting by Bart Forbes based on a photograph of Vaughan in concert taken by Hugh Bell in 1955. According to the USPS news release, Vaughan stands out as "one of America's greatest singers, successful in both jazz and pop, with a talent for improvisation and skillful phrasing and a voice that ranged over several octaves." The back cover of the 16-stamp sheet will feature a list of Vaughan's most successful recordings, including "Misty," "Body and Soul," and "Autumn in New York." The stamp will be issued at the end of March, and a ceremony will be held at Newark's Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall on the 29th of that month. This is certainly great news for all stamp-collecting jazz lovers like me! More information about this and other forthcoming stamps issued by the USPS is available here.

The description made by the USPS news release of Vaughan's vocal abilities is accurate—she was popular both as a jazz and a pop singer, although most of her pop records are decidedly steeped in jazz. Her vocal range and her sense of rhythm and timing, as well as her incredible breath control, earned her a rightful place among the greatest jazz singers in history, alongside legends like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Her approach to the vocal art was always adventurous and surprising, and she was just as good in a warm, intimate small-group setting as in a recording session backed by a large string orchestra. As a result, she left us a vast discography full of gems in a variety of styles, from jazz to pop to Brazilian music to R&B-inflected numbers. A good selection of her pop output for Mercury can be found in Sarah Vaughan Sings Broadway, a two-CD set containing songs from Broadway shows that she recorded between 1954 and 1956. Here she is mostly accompanied by a studio orchestra conducted by Hal Mooney, and the lush arrangements are absolutely perfect for her divine voice. For anyone preferring to sample her jazzier side (which has always been my first choice) there are a wealth of albums, from the sides she cut with Clifford Brown in the '50s to her collaborations with Count Basie in the '60s to her recordings with Oscar Peterson in the '70s. Yet one of the best examples of Sassy in her jazzy prime is her 1957 live album At Mister Kelly's, cut at the famed Chicago jazz club in a trio setting featuring pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Roy Haynes. There's an undeniable connection between Vaughan and the audience, both in the intimate ballads ("Willow Weep for Me," "Stairway to the Stars") and on uptempo numbers ("Thou Swell," "Honeysuckle Rose," "How High the Moon") where she cuts loose, aided by a trio that supports her very effectively without ever getting in her way. These two CDs allow us glimpses into two fascinating sides of a multifaceted performer whose recorded legacy remains a true treasure of 20th-century music.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr. on Jazz, 1964

Today, as we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States, I am reminded of a speech that Dr. King wrote for the opening of the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. Although apparently he wasn't in attendance at the festival, Dr. King composed a memorable text for the event in which he discusses the social and spiritual role of jazz, as well as its role within the Civil Rights Movement. The speech was shrouded in mystery for a long time because no images or recordings of it are extant, but researchers David Demsey and Bruce Jackson have recently established that Dr. King never actually gave the speech, which was written to be printed in the program of the festival. Fortunately, the text of the speech has survived and is stunning for its beauty and poetic value, as well as for its social and historical significance. The following is an excerpt, which is good proof of the high esteem in which Dr. King held jazz as both artistic expression and catalyst for social change.

"Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. 
This is triumphant music. 
Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument. 
It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. 
Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down." 
Read the whole speech here.

One of those jazzmen who, in the words of Dr. King, "were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls" was saxophonist John Coltrane, whose music was growing increasingly experimental around the time that Dr. King wrote this speech and whose work of this period often illustrates the social changes that were occurring in the United States throughout the 1960s. A perfect example of this is Coltrane's composition "Alabama," included in 1963's Live at Birdland, a tune he wrote after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four African American kids were killed. Coltrane's powerful, mournful composition is one of the highlights of the album, and it's inspired precisely by the rhythm and cadences of a speech by Dr. King that Trane had heard following the events in Birmingham. Coltrane is joined by McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums, and their passionate cry for freedom, justice, and equality hasn't lost any of its poignancy more than half a century after it was recorded. It is, indeed, the perfect tune to play on a day like today.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Paul Bley Plays Standards, 1988

I recently learned of the passing of Canadian pianist Paul Bley, 83, which happened on January 3 at his Florida home. Born in Montreal in 1932, Bley was one of the most innovative jazz pianists to come on the scene in the 1950s and '60s, and he was known for his inventive improvisational skills that helped him create a sound that, though based on bop and hard bop, was extremely personal and unique. Bley was also a very prolific musician, with a discography that is simply monumental, and throughout his long career, which is fortunately very well documented on record, he was a tireless experimenter who even tried his hand at playing the synthesizer in the 1970s and made it work. His personal and professional associations with his first and second wives, Carla Bley and Annette Peacock, were very satisfying artistically though they didn't last too long, and his work displays such a consistently high quality that one can't truly comprehend the development of modern jazz without acknowledging Bley's trailblazing role. Over the years, he performed and recorded alongside such giants as Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Donald Byrd, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Jimmy Giuffre, to name but just a few, supporting them superbly and inspiring them constantly to go beyond the conventional improvisational parameters of the time. And on the countless albums he made as a leader, Bley's vision was always different and sounded necessarily modern because he seemed to know exactly what he wanted to attain with his music, whether playing in a straight-ahead jazz context or experimenting with electronic instruments.

One of my favorite albums by Paul Bley is The Nearness of You (SteepleChase), cut in November 1988 in a trio setting with Ron McClure on bass and Billy Hart on drums. On this occasion, Bley selected eight tried-and-true standards, all of which become vehicles for long improvisations that allow the pianist to reinvent the melodies and play with approaches and tempi, thereby breathing new life into well-known, recognizable songs. We can already hear this on the album opener, "This Can't Be Love," taken at a fast, swinging pace, as well as on Oscar Pettiford's "Blues in the Closet," which leaves ample room for long solos by everyone involved. The title track, lasting over 12 minutes, is a standout in the ballad department, and "What a Difference a Day Makes" starts off with a slightly Latin beat and is good proof of Bley's stunning improvisational skills, complete with an unexpected quote from Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke's "Midnight Sun." Bley also plays two other ballads, "These Foolish Things" and "We'll Be Together Again," with great delicacy, building upon the groundwork laid by the rhythm section and taking the melodies to a whole new level. This happens also on the final track, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," where even the introductory vamp is completely reworked in a very percussive way with the help of Hart's energetic drumming. It's the icing on the cake of a fantastic album, one of several that Bley cut in the 1980s for SteepleChase, and one that clearly shows the genius of a man who spent his life and career striving to go beyond the accepted norm and did it with personality and huge amounts of imagination and class. No doubt he will be sorely missed.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Houston Person on Muse Records

Houston Person (Photo: Gene Martin)
Today, in the latest issue of Down Beat magazine, I read a review of saxophonist Houston Person's new album, Something Personal, that calls the CD "an especially swingin' brand of dinner jazz" and awards it 3 and a half stars out of 5. I won't argue with Michael Jackson—such is the reviewer's name—because I haven't listened to Person's new studio effort yet, but I've never known the South Carolina-born tenorist to have recorded anything less than satisfying. Person's powerful attack and soulful style have garnered him comparisons with Coleman Hawkins and Gene Ammons, and one can also hear a little touch of Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis here and there, particularly when his recordings feature organ accompaniment, which is quite often. In those cases, it's impossible to listen to Person and not be reminded of the many records that Jaws and organist Shirley Scott cut together. Person spent part of his stint in the Army stationed in Germany, where he was very active as a musician, and upon his return to civilian life, he worked with organist Johnny "Hammond" Smith before leading his own bands and forming a musical partnership with the singer Etta Jones. His first album came out in 1966, and throughout his long career he has recorded in a variety of settings and has even done some production work, though most of his best recordings are the ones he has made with small groups, creating a very appealing sound derived from blues and soul.

The recent Down Beat review somehow put me in the mood to dust off my favorite CD by Person, A Little Houston on the Side (Savoy Jazz), which contains a cross-section of his work for the Muse label between the 1970s and the 1990s. There isn't a single superfluous track on this compilation, and the first two tunes already make it clear that Person's music is deeply rooted in the blues—"Walking the Dog" is a standout, with Jack McDuff on organ and Ron Bridgewater engaging in some inventive tenor dialogues with Person, and "Late Night Lullaby," a Person original, is an irresistible slice of mid-tempo blues. Person tips his hat to John Coltrane with a reading of Trane's "Equinox" that proves he also feels comfortable within the framework of hard bop, and Sonny Rollins's "Blue Seven" is a duet between Person and bassist Ron Carter, who collaborated on quite a few sides for the Muse label. There's also room for ballads, such as "I Remember Clifford" and "My Romance"—in the former Person sounds breathy and sweet, while on the latter his approach is much more passionate and vibrant. Charles Brown appears on vocals on "Sweet Slumber" and, of course, Person's longtime partner, Etta Jones, handles the singing on a lovely version of "Laughing at Life." Other musicians that accompany the tenorist on these 11 selections include, among others, Richard "Groove" Holmes and Joey DeFrancesco (organ), Red Callender and Milt Hinton (bass), and Grady Tate and Kenny Washington (drums). Without a doubt, this is one of the best collections currently available for anyone interested in getting acquainted with the magnificent music of Houston Person.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Stuff Smith and Oscar Peterson, 1957

Though perhaps he may not be as well remembered today as fellow violinists Joe Venuti and Stéphane Grappelli, the great Stuff Smith is one of the most exciting jazzmen to ever pick up a violin. Born in Portsmouth, Ohio, in 1909, Smith was playing the instrument by age 9 in a band led by his father. In the 1920s he joined the Alphonse Trent orchestra, a territory band that operated mostly in the Texas area, and by the advent of the Swing Era, Smith had moved to New York City, where he became extremely popular with the crowds that gathered at the Onyx Club, mostly made up of musicians. His flawless sense of swing, which he claimed to have learned from none other than Louis Armstrong, soon made him one of the foremost swing violinists, and he was among the very first jazzmen to play electric violin. Smith made his first recordings around 1928, and several of them (particularly "I'Se a-Muggin'," which also features his own infectious vocals) became popular, but he didn't actually record too many albums as a leader. One of his most memorable LPs was cut in 1957 and reissued on CD a few years ago as Stuff Smith & Oscar Peterson (Poll Winners) with three extra tracks added to the six on the original album.

The quartet that accompanies Smith on the two sessions that were needed to complete the album (held in Los Angeles in March 1957) is stellar: Oscar Peterson on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Alvin Stoller on drums. Everyone involved seems to be at ease, with all participants trading excellent solos, although Smith, Peterson, and Kessel are featured more prominently than the rest. In fact, Smith and Kessel interact seamlessly throughout both sessions, as we can clearly hear on "Soft Winds." Popular standards such as "It Don't Mean a Thing," "I Know That You Know," and "Heat Wave" are perfect vehicles to showcase Smith's virtuosity on the violin, always ably supported by Kessel, Peterson, and the rhythm section. On Duke Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," Smith proves that his style is deeply rooted in the blues, and "In a Mellow Tone" offers a good opportunity for everyone to turn in highly inspired solos. Although Smith is known for his swinging style, the extended version of "Body and Soul" shows that he can also be sensitive and inspiring when it comes to ballads. There are even two Smith originals, "Desert Sands" and "Time and Again," that remind us that he was also very talented as a composer. This very recommendable CD also includes two tunes  ("Calypso" and "I Wrote My Song") from a February 1957 date that finds Smith in a similar mood in the company of pianist Carl Perkins, bassist Red Callender, and drummer Oscar Bradley. Writing in Down Beat about this album in 1957, critic Leonard Feather said that "there is no human being on earth or in heaven who can outswing Stuff Smith." Anyone who listens to these wonderful recordings will undoubtedly agree.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Buddy Tate & Humphrey Lyttelton in London, 1974

The first Jazz Flashes post of 2016 is devoted to a little-known collaboration between trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton and saxophonist Buddy Tate, a session held in London in the 1970s. Happy New Year full of great jazz to everyone!

Not only was British trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton a fine musician, but he was also a tireless promoter of and advocate for good jazz in the British Isles, engaging in all sorts of activities, from making popular records like "Bad Penny Blues" to organizing jazz festivals to hosting radio and television shows. Steeped in New Orleans jazz and swing since he taught himself to play the trumpet, Lyttelton became one of the most prominent figures of the so-called trad jazz movement in Britain in the 1950s along with other big names such as Chris Barber and Ken Colyer. By the mid-1970s, when he cut this session with tenorist Buddy Tate, he'd been active in British jazz circles for well over 20 years and was highly respected. Born in Sherman, TX, in 1913, Tate came straight out of the Swing Era and soon became prominent through his work with the Count Basie Orchestra, where he replaced tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans. Throughout his career, Tate led a number of fantastic recording sessions, fronted a band for over 20 years at the Celebrity Club in Harlem, and was a frequent visitor to Europe. It was precisely during one of these visits, when he played the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974, that this little-known session with Lyttelton and a host of fine British musicians took place.

The eight tracks that comprise Swinging Scorpio (Black Lion) were recorded at London's Pye Studios on July 3, 1974, and find Lyttelton (trumpet, clarinet) and Tate (tenor sax, clarinet) in the company of Bruce Turner (alto sax, clarinet), Kathleen Stobart (tenor and baritone saxes, clarinet), Mick Pyne (piano), Dave Green (bass), and Tony Mann (drums). This is the type of studio band that Lyttelton often put together for specific recording sessions, and all musicians involved have a thorough understanding of the swing idiom and are able accompanists to a giant like Tate. Legendary trumpeter Buck Clayton contributed all the original compositions and arrangements for the date, mostly because by the mid-1970s, he'd retired from playing and had concentrated on writing and arranging for medical reasons. In fact, Clayton wasn't able to attend the session due to health problems, but the charts he devised here are all the work of a master arranger with very clear ideas about how a small swing band should sound. The blues inflections we can hear on Clayton's own playing can be heard throughout this session, from "Kansas City Woman," with a lovely baritone sax solo from Stobart, to "Swinging Scorpio," which features a solid piano solo from Pyne. Clayton's ensemble writing is very exciting on uptempo numbers ("Outswinger," "Steevos," "Clarinet Lemonade") and his charts leave quite a bit of room for solos by Tate and Lyttelton. The only ballad that came out of this session, "The One for Me," shows that Clayton could also turn in sensitive slow tunes, and this one benefits from some highly restrained contributions from Lyttelton, Tate, and Pyne. All in all, this session is the work of a master saxophonist who was still in fine form in his sixties and is supported by a very sympathetic group of outstanding British musicians, and as such, it deserves to be heard.

Humphrey Lyttelton with Duke Ellington.