Saturday, March 12, 2016

Bud Shank & Laurindo Almeida: The Roots of Brazilian Jazz, 1953-59

A young Bud Shank
It's been quite a rainy week in northwest Tennessee, so as we patiently wait for warmer weather, I've been spinning quite a few Brazilian-flavored jazz records. The fusion of jazz and bossa nova is usually credited to Stan Getz and João Gilberto's albums from the early 1960s, which introduced the new, exciting Brazilian rhythms to American audiences. However, in 1953 and 1954, altoist Bud Shank and Brazilian guitarist/composer Laurindo Almeida recorded a series of tracks in a quartet setting, with Harry Babasin on bass and Roy Harte on drums, that foreshadow the innovations that would come in full force some seven years later. Almeida had arrived in Los Angeles from his native Rio de Janeiro in 1947 and had found work almost instantly with the Stan Kenton orchestra before participating in these groundbreaking sessions with Shank. The results of his collaboration with the saxophonist were released by World Pacific on a ten-inch album entitled The Laurindo Almeida Quartet Featuring Bud Shank, now reissued as Brazilliance—and brazilliant it was indeed! The record was a very appealing mixture of Brazilian folk rhythms and jazz improvisation, using mostly original tunes by Almeida and other Brazilian composers as the tentative ground on which to build this new sound. The quartet also attempts a similar approach to Latin American songs ("Acércate Más") and standards such as "Speak Low" and "Stairway to the Stars." Shank himself doesn't consider these recordings strictly as bossa nova, yet what Getz, Gilberto, and others would develop in the '60s is already present here, though still in embryonic form. However, this music isn't important merely for historical reasons, but it's the enjoyable product of a group of musicians seeking an innovative sound by mixing a variety of musical influences. The occasional doubts and insecurities that one can detect here and there only add to the charm of what was captured on tape at these sessions.

Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida
Some years later, in 1958 and 1959, Almeida and Shank got together again to cut a few more tracks, accompanied this time by Gary Peacock on bass and Chuck Flores on percussion. These new recordings were subsequently released by World Pacific as The Laurindo Almeida Quartet Featuring Bud Shank, Vol. 2. The concept behind these sessions wasn't substantially different from the work cut in 1953-54, though the group does concentrate more on Almeida and Shank compositions, and the latter's solos (both on alto and flute) have become longer and jazzier. On the standards "Little Girl Blue" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" the quartet treads on familiar ground, but the true gems that came out of these dates are originals such as "Nocturno," "Mood Antigua," and "Lonely." Fortunately, the British label Jasmine Records has reissued both volumes of Brazilliance on a single CD, and even though the sound is excellent, next to no background information is provided, and the booklet only includes a brief adaptation of the original liner notes. The same material is also available on a 2012 single disc from the Poll Winners label, with considerably more attractive packaging. Whatever edition one decides to purchase (I only own the Jasmine release) this is groundbreaking music that remains surprisingly fresh and exciting all these decades later.

More Information about These Sessions

In 2008, Bud Shank spoke to critic Marc Myers about these sessions. Myers published the very interesting three-part interview in his blog, JazzWax. Here are links to Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Paul Gonsalves & Ray Nance, 1970

I recently published here a post about the 1956 collaboration between Duke Ellington and Rosemary Clooney that resulted in the excellent Columbia album Blue Rose. About 14 years later, in August and September of 1970, two of the musicians that were a part of the Ellington band during those sessions with Clooney, Paul Gonsalves and Ray Nance, came together in New York City for the two dates that produced the album Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin', which was fortunately reissued on CD by the Black Lion label in 1990, though that release isn't always easy to find. Born in Chicago in 1913, Nance learned to play the piano and the violin before taking up the trumpet, as he himself told critic Stanley Dance, because "I wanted to hear myself on a louder instrument in a way I couldn't do with the violin in the orchestra." After working with Earl Hines and Horace Henderson, Nance joined Ellington in 1940 and stayed until the 1960s, distinguishing himself as a master of the growling trumpet, but also as a violinist and a Louis Armstrong-influenced singer. Gonsalves, who was born in Boston in 1920 and whose parents came originally from the islands of Cape Verde, was about seven years younger than Nance and didn't become an Ellingtonian until 1950, although by then he'd already made a name for himself via his work with orchestras led by Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. The warmth of his tone on the tenor saxophone was undoubtedly inspired by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but he developed a recognizable style that can be heard at its very best on an epic solo he took during Ellington's version of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.

The multitalented Ray Nance
As I've mentioned, the Nance-Gonsalves colaboration we're discussing today materialized over the course of two different sessions. On the first of these dates, they're joined by Raymond Fol on piano, Al Hall on bass, and Oliver Jackson on drums, and the quintet goes through a very appealing selection of tunes, mostly written by the Duke and Billy Strayhorn. Nance alternates between trumpet and violin and even offers a sample of his tuneful, gravelly singing on the title track of the album and on the light-hearted "I'm in the Market for You." Gonsalves plays some very lyrical, breathy, Webster-infused tenor saxophone throughout the whole date. For the second session, the group is augmented by Norris Turney on alto saxophone and flute, and the great Hank Jones replaces Fol at the keyboard. That second meeting spawned "B.P. Blues," a lovely Ellington-penned blues tune that kicks off the album, but for the most part, the numbers chosen, such as "Don't Blame Me" and a very beautiful reading of Matt Dennis's "Angel Eyes," are standards not written by Ellington or Strayhorn. The CD reissue, which reprints the original liner notes by producer Alan Bates, is rounded up by two selections ("I Cover the Waterfront" and "Stompy Jones") not included in the original LP. Although this marvelous session is currently out of print on CD, until someone decides to make it more easily available once again, it's certainly well worth picking up a used copy—that is, in the event that one is lucky enough to find the disc at a reasonable price.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Voice of Johnny Hartman, 1963

As wonderful as the 1963 album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman is (undoubtedly one of the all-time classic jazz vocal albums) my introduction to the unique sound of Johnny Hartman's voice came via another record, one he cut for Impulse two years later, in 1965—The Voice That Is! As soon as I heard it, I was hooked, and I only discovered Hartman's timeless collaboration with Trane a little later and was similarly awestruck. Hartman was essentially a jazz-inflected pop singer, a stylistic heir to Billy Eckstine by way of Frank Sinatra, to whom the title of The Voice That Is unequivocally alludes. The smooth, deep voice reminds us of Mr. B., while his way with a ballad is clearly influenced by the young Mr. S. Indeed, until he cut his celebrated LP with John Coltrane, Hartman had been trying to make it primarily as a balladeer, straddling the fence between jazz and pop, as we can hear on his excellent (and quite underrated) debut album, Songs from the Heart (Bethlehem, 1955), with Ralph Sharon on piano and Howard McGhee on trumpet. Before that, he had worked with Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie, and up until signing with Impulse in the early 1960s, he had made records with strings and with the likes of Erroll Garner and Perez Prado. But then he co-led that famous session with Coltrane, and everything changed for him: all of a sudden, Hartman's star began to rise, but he was seen primarily as a jazzman now, not a pop singer, which opened many doors for him, but at the same time closed some others. There were many venues that began booking him as a jazz vocalist, but that left him out of other venues that wouldn't get anywhere near a singer associated with jazz.

Fortunately, the success of John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman prompted Impulse to record Hartman more extensively, and The Voice That Is, cut at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in September 1964, is actually his third outing for the label. The LP was the product of two different sessions, both produced by Bob Thiele. The first one took place on September 22 and finds Hartman accompanied by Hank Jones on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar, Richard Davis on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums. The setting here is rather similar to what we can hear on his previous album, I Just Dropped By to Say Hello, and the songs are mostly intimate ballads ("My Ship," "These Foolish Things," "It Never Entered My Mind") that Hartman handles with ease and elegance. There's a mid-tempo number, "The More I See You," that proves Hartman can swing when he wants to, and a lovely version of Bill Evans's "Waltz for Debby" (Gene Lees's beautiful lyrics sound tailor-made for Hartman) that is one of the highlights of the album and makes me wish that the vocalist had done an LP with Evans, like Tony Bennett and Monica Zetterlund did. The same quartet appears again on the second session, held on September 24, except for the fact that Bob Hammer, who handles the arrangements as well, replaces Hank Jones on piano. Also, the lineup is augmented with Dick Hafer on reeds, Phil Kraus on marimba, Howard Collins on guitar, and Willie Rodriguez on percussion, and so the rhythms become more unusually exotic, as on the catchy "The Day the World Stopped Turning," which features a beautiful flute solo by Hafer, and Henry Mancini's lesser-known "A Slow Hot Wind," whose very charming melody is subtly punctuated by Kraus's marimba. On this session Hartman took a stab at more contemporary songs, such as Ennio Morricone's "Funny World," Bart Howard's "Let Me Love You," and "Sunrise, Sunset," from Fiddler on the Roof, which closes the album. Frank Loesser's "Joey. Joey, Joey" is another good example of a tune that doesn't usually turn up on vocal jazz albums (Sammy Davis, Jr. did it as a duet with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, for instance) but then The Voice That Is simply isn't a typical vocal jazz record. Hartman made a few more recordings in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, before his passing in 1983, including some excellent Coltrane-inspired sessions in Japan, yet he sadly never achieved the kind of recognition that his talent should have warranted. Luckily, we still have his albums, and The Voice That Is remains one of his freshest and most satisfying efforts.

Recommended Reading

The only book-length biography of Johnny Hartman currently available is Gregg Akkerman's excellent The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story (Scarecrow Press, 2012). You may find it here.

Johnny Hartman Online Discography

Mr. Akkerman and my friend Noal Cohen collaborated on a very thorough Johnny Hartman discography, which you may find here.