Saturday, February 27, 2016

Howard McGhee Is Back in Town, 1961

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1918, Howard McGhee was one of the most prodigiously talented trumpeters of his generation, on a par with legends like Dizzy Gillespie, and he was instrumental in bridging the gap between swing and bop. He was, however, a late comer to the instrument, having started out on the saxophone and the clarinet, but once he picked up the trumpet, there was no turning back. In the original liner notes to the album we're discussing today, Maggie's Back in Town, written by Nat Hentoff, McGhee attributes his tendency toward playing more notes than other trumpeters to the fact that he was a saxophonist and clarinetist first, and he also remembers that his parents weren't in the least pleased about his interest in jazz: "I used to sneak a radio into my room and listen to Roy [Eldridge] on the air. My folks were church people. They didn't like jazz, and they didn't want me to play it, but that was what I wanted to do, and nothing could stop me." Roy Eldridge and Louis Armstrong were his earliest influences, and he in turn influenced a host of trumpeters who came after, among them the great Clifford Brown. During the Swing Era, Maggie--such was his nickname, to which the title of the LP makes reference--was a member of several bands, including those led by Lionel Hampton, Andy Kirk, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, and Georgie Auld, and he distinguished himself for his powerful, exciting style that can be heard, for example, on "McGhee Special," recorded while with Kirk. The year of 1945 marks a turning point in McGhee's career: he joined Coleman Hawkins and relocated to California, where he played countless live dates and cut some forward-looking records for Dial, including sessions with Charlie Parker. Bop classics such as "Rifftide" and "Stuffy" originated during these extremely important years.

Unfortunately, at the same time that his career was thriving, a host of drug-related problems began to dramatically affect his personal life, and as a result, McGhee's recordings throughout the 1950s are very scarce. He did make a worthy comeback album of sorts for Bethlehem in 1956, The Return of Howard McGhee (with Sahib Shihab, Duke Jordan, Percy Heath, and Philly Joe Jones), but it wasn't until 1961, when he released Maggie's Back in Town on Contemporary Records, that he was truly back on the scene--and this time to stay. The album was cut during the course of a single session, which took place in Los Angeles on June 26, 1961, and finds McGhee in the excellent company of pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Shelly Manne. Around this time, McGhee and Vinnegar had been playing at the Town Hill in L.A., and their mutual understanding is obvious on this recording, as is Maggie's affinity with Newborn. The opening track, "Demon Chase," is the only McGhee original, and it starts off with an interesting call-and-response structure that gives way to lovely solos by both McGhee and Newborn. Two of the tunes were composed by Teddy Edwards: his classic "Sunset Eyes" and "Maggie's Back in Town," which Edwards obviously wrote for this session and which is given a ten-minute treatment that allows for plenty of room for everyone to solo. There are also three standards ("Willow Weep for Me," "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," and "Summertime"), all of them taken at a rather brisk tempo, with McGhee mainly playing muted trumpet (except in the release of "Willow") and offering some inventive improvisation on the melodies with the help of Newborn and the rhythm section. Finally, the album closes with "Brownie Speaks," a masterfully played salute to Clifford Brown, a trumpeter that McGhee influenced and also deeply admired, both as a musician and as a composer. Though McGhee would cut a few more notable albums before his passing in 1987, this comeback LP that Original Jazz Classics reissued on CD 1991 remains one of his most enduring statements on record and is absolutely recommendable.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Duke Ellington and Rosemary Clooney, 1956

Although his records often feature worthy vocalists, Duke Ellington didn't collaborate with too many singers on full-length albums. An obvious example that comes readily to mind is his landmark meeting with Ella Fitzgerald in 1957, which yielded the excellent Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook for Verve. Yet one year before that, in 1956, the studios of Columbia Records witnessed another magnificent collaboration, this time with the always compelling Rosemary Clooney. The association produced the excellent album Blue Rose, and even though it all might have seemed rather unlikely at first sight, the results certainly proved otherwise, as Clooney showed that she was not only a fine pop singer, but also a jazz vocalist of the first order. This had already been evident on the recordings she'd previously made with Benny Goodman and with Harry James, and it would become particularly obvious in the outstanding series of songbook albums that she cut in the 1970s and '80s in a small-group jazz setting for Concord. And then there's her series of radio shows for CBS backed by Buddy Cole in the 1950s—and recently reissued on a Mosaic Records box set—which are also good proof of how much at ease she felt singing with a small jazz combo. But to my ears, her LP with Ellington by far represents her best work as a jazz singer.

The album is clearly intended to be a sort of Ellington songbook, since all the tunes are written by the maestro, and as always, Duke and Billy Strayhorn provide very appropriate musical settings for Clooney's voice. The arrangements are imaginative and sometimes intricate without ever getting in the way of her lightly swinging, highly attractive voice. Apparently, Clooney and Ellington were unable to work together in the studio, owing to the fact that the singer was undergoing a rather difficult pregnancy at the time the album was recorded. Therefore, the band was forced to lay down the instrumental tracks in New York and Clooney later overdubbed her vocals in Los Angeles. Listening to the finished product, though, there doesn't seem to be any aural evidence of this, as the interaction between vocalist and orchestra sounds perfectly natural and seamless. Rosie tackles Ellington classics such as "Sophisticated Lady," "I Let a Song Go out of My Heart," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Mood Indigo," and "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)" with ease and gusto, and all tracks are embellished by first-rate solos from Ellington's sidemen, including legendary names such as trumpeters Ray NanceClark Terry, and Cat Anderson, and saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Russell Procope, Harry Carney, and Paul Gonsalves, among several others. The indispensable 1999 Columbia-Legacy reissue includes an illuminating essay by Will Friedwald, as well as two bonus tracks from the sessions ("If You Were in My Place" and "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'") that were not included in the original album and is indispensable to understand Clooney's jazzier side. Any serious appreciation of Rosie from the perspective of jazz should start right here.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Chris Barber Live in East Berlin, 1968

Along with Humphrey Lyttelton, Ken Colyer, Kenny Ball, and Acker Bilk, among others, trombonist Chris Barber is one of the elder statesmen of British trad jazz, which was all the rage in the United Kingdom throughout the 1950s and would spawn and help popularize other styles such as skiffle and the British beat of the 1960s. Yet though his music is undeniably inspired by the classic New Orleans tradition, Barber has always had the ability to change with the times, which explains why he's managed to build up a following and stay current for such a long time. That may also go a long way toward explaining the international appeal of his band, which, as we can see from the title of the album we're presenting here, extended even beyond the old Iron Curtain. Barber was born in Hertfordshire in 1930, and after developing an interest in New Orleans jazz and the blues, he formed his first band while still a teenager. Barber had his biggest hits in the 1950s, among them the smash "Petite Fleur," with a memorable appearance from Monty Sunshine on clarinet. Scottish banjoist Lonnie Donegan played with Barber for several years, and his version of "Rock Island Line" hit the charts while he was still a member of Barber's outfit, thereby prompting the short-lived skiffle craze of the mid-'50s. The sound of Barber's band was always tight and exciting, and his affinity for the blues led to many gigs backing American bluesmen who were on tour in Britain. Barber even organized some of these tours, helping bring excellent blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy to the British Isles and helping pave the way for R&B-inspired bands like the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones.

The first time I ever heard Barber was on a two-volume vinyl album that my father had and that included a late-'60s live appearance by his band in East Berlin, and I was impressed by the irresistible sound of a band that seemed to be having a ball on stage that day at the Friedrichstadt Palast. Fortunately, that concert was reissued on CD by the Black Lion label in 1990 as Live in East Berlin, with excellent sound, and from the very beginning of the record we quickly realize that we're in for a treat. The band uses "I Never Shall Forget" as a vehicle for a German announcer to introduce each musician individually, after which they launch into an infectiously joyful reading of "Royal Garden Blues." Barber, of course, is on trombone, and the group includes fine trad musicians like trumpeter Pat Halcox, altoist / clarinetist John Crocker, guitarist John Slaughter, banjoist Stu Morrison, bassist Jackie Flavelle, and drummer Graham Burbridge. The repertoire includes New Orleans staples such as "Royal Garden Blues" and "Wild Cat Blues," some popular standards like "Lazy River" and "Makin' Whoopee," and even some sacred numbers such as "Over in Gloryland" and "God Can Do Anything." There are tips of the hat to Barney Bigard ("Saratoga Swing"), George Lewis ("St. Phillip Street Breakdown"), and early Johnny Hodges ("Sweet as Bear Meat"), and there's even time for Barber's own "Battersea Rain Dance." Barber uses Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazy River" to showcase his warm, blues-inflected trombone style, and Bigard's "Saratoga Swing," one of the many highlights of the concert, becomes a nine-minute tour de force with outstanding bluesy solos from Halcox and Slaughter. For over sixty years now, Chris Barber has been leading one of the best jazz outfits to come out of Britain, and this live recording in East Berlin catches the band in its prime in 1968 and is as good an introduction to Barber's sound as any compilation of his studio recordings.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Jutta Hipp and Zoot Sims, 1956

German pianist Jutta Hipp met versatile saxophonist Zoot Sims sometime in the 1950s in Germany, precisely during a European tour of the Stan Kenton band, of which Sims was a member at the time. Born in Leipzig in 1925, Hipp had been playing in her native country and recording only occasionally since the end of WWII. That is, until she met Sims and critic Leonard Feather, who persuaded her to move to New York City. Upon her arrival stateside in 1955, she encountered harsh criticism from both jazz fans and critics who believed that her playing style was too close to that of Lennie Tristano and, particularly, that of Horace Silver. But by 1956, when she appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival and cut this impressive session with Sims at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio, she seems to have set out to prove her critics wrong.

Zoot and Jutta
Indeed, on Jutta Hipp with Zoot Sims, released on Blue Note in 1956, Hipp stays away from the influence of Tristano and Silver, and her sound is full of swing on uptempo numbers ("Wee Dot," "Almost Like Being in Love," "Too Close for Comfort") and of restrained melancholy on "Violets for Your Furs," the only ballad of the session. The group is rounded out by Jerry Lloyd on trumpet, Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums, and this quintet setting is perfect to showcase Hipp's delicate playing. Lloyd provides an original composition ("Down Home") and Sims another one ("Just Blues"), and even though Sims's tenor saxophone is accorded more space than Hipp's piano, it is Hipp that creates the wistful, easy-going atmosphere that makes this album a winner. The 2008 CD reissue adds two tracks from the session that never made it onto the original LP ("These Foolish Things" and "'S Wonderful"), thus offering everything that Hipp and Sims recorded together. Hipp, who was also a talented painter, would inexplicably retire from the New York jazz scene shortly after leading this session, and this very recommendable quintet album is definitely the highlight of her meager, though very interesting, discography. Anyone who enjoys her collaboration with Sims should definitely look up her live cuts At the Hickory House (Blue Note, two volumes), as well as the recordings she made in Germany before moving to the U.S., which can be found on Frankfurt Special (Fresh Sound) and Lost Tapes: The German Recordings 1952-1955 (Jazzhaus).