Monday, May 30, 2016

New Releases: Mattias Nilsson's Dreams of Belonging

Mattias Nilsson (Photo: Anja Emzén)
Born in Karlskrona, Sweden, in 1980, pianist Mattias Nilsson turned down the offer of a place at Malmö Academy of Music, to his parents' dismay, in order to follow a career as a professional jazz musician. In a recent interview with the website Friends of Jan Lundgren, Nilsson briefly explains his reasons: "My argument was that things were already looking as though they might work out, and I didn't want to halt my progress by taking four years off to study. I think it was Branford Marsalis who said 'If you've got something to fall back on, you probably will.'" This career-defining decision took place over a decade ago, and all these years later, time has proven Nilsson right: he's one of a select group of full-time jazz musicians in Scandinavia who don't need a second occupation to support themselves, has received several of Sweden's most prestigious awards and scholarships, and has done his fair share of touring throughout Europe and even as far afield as South America. What's more, Nilsson just released his first album as a leader—Dreams of Belonging. Cut precisely in Malmö over the course of two sessions on January 8 and 9, 2016, this is a solo effort partly inscribed within the long-standing Nordic tradition of blending jazz and folk music that goes back to the great Jan Johansson in the 1960s.

In fact, the opening track, "Folk Melody from Västmanland" (incidentally, the Swedish national anthem, also known as "Du Gamla, Du Fria"), is a beautiful traditional tune played with delicacy by Nilsson, who approaches "Serenade" and the title track, "Dreams of Belonging" in the same wistful, introspective sort of way. The latter is one of the three Nilsson originals on the album; the other two are "Hymn to Love" and "Spirea," two very personal pieces taken at a slow pace that are good examples of Nilsson's talent as a composer of semi-classical jazz. "At Frösö Church" is an equally relaxed take on "Vid Frösö Kyrka," a melody by the noted Swedish composer Wilhelm Peterson-Berger, and "Södermalm" comes from the pen of another important 20th-century composer, Thore Swanerud. Nilsson looks back even further on the album closer, "Day by Day," an old hymn originally titled "Blott en Dag" and written by the revered 19th-century songwriter Oscar Ahnfelt. Though the influence of Johansson and his epoch-making LP Jazz på Svenska is undeniable, in his interview with the Jan Lundgren fan club website, Nilsson says that he's tried to put his own personal stamp on the music: "The album centers around the kind of traditional Swedish music I've always been drawn to, and although I use plenty of jazz techniques, I hope I've been able to find my own 'voice' in the material." This he definitely does achieve on his version of John Hartford's country tune "Gentle on My Mind" (a major hit for both Glen Campbell and Dean Martin in the '60s, but hardly a common choice for jazz recordings), possibly the most light-hearted track on the album, and generally throughout the whole CD. Overall, this is a very satisfying solo piano effort that is well worth playing more than once, since it gets better and better with each listen.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Workin' & Wailin': Harold Mabern on Prestige, 1969

Hank Mobley and Harold Mabern
An often overlooked hard bop pianist, Harold Mabern has nonetheless carved out a long career as both a sideman and a leader, occasionally dabbling in soul jazz, composing a lot of his own material, and always playing with sensitivity and verve. Born in Memphis in 1936, he was initially influenced by fellow Memphian Phineas Newborn, Jr., and could double on electric piano whenever necessary. Virtually self-taught, Mabern started to make a name for himself in Chicago after moving there in 1954, yet his most intense flurry of activity as a sideman coincides with the first half of the 1960s, following a life-changing move to New York City in 1959. It was there that he began playing with the likes of Harry "Sweets" Edison and Lionel Hampton, and soon he was touring with Art Farmer and Benny Golson's Jazztet. The list of musicians with whom Mabern played in the sixties reads like a who's who of the jazz scene of the period, including, among many others, Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley (he sounds fantastic on Mobley's album Dippin'), J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, and singers Johnny Hartman, Betty Carter, and Sarah Vaughan. Of course, he recorded with many of them, but his recording career as a leader doesn't begin until 1968, when he signed with Prestige and cut four lovely albums that, unfortunately, aren't easy to find on CD.

The third of these LPs, recorded in a single session on June 30, 1969, is entitled Workin' & Wailin' and finds Mabern both on piano and electric piano, accompanied by Virgil Jones on trumpet and flugelhorn, George Coleman on tenor, Buster Williams on bass, and Idris Muhammad (aka Leo Morris) on drums. Mabern contributed four original compositions to the date, among them two, "Strozier's Mode" and "Blues for Phineas," that allude to his friend Frank Strozier and to pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., both of whom were important influences in his life. On the latter, Mabern switches to electric piano and proves to be a soulful interpreter of the blues on that instrument. The other two selections written by Mabern are "I Can't Understand What I See in You," a catchy, contemporary-sounding tune, and "Waltzing Westward," a lively melody in three-quarter time. All four Mabern originals are good examples of the pianist's aggressive, chord-filled approach and showcase his undeniable talent as a composer, also leaving plenty of room for Jones and Coleman to shine. The album opener, "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby," associated with The Temptations and Marvin Gaye, finds Mabern stepping into soul jazz territory, while the closing track, Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster's "A Time for Love," is the slowest selection on the LP and shows Mabern's most sensitive side. The album has been collated with another Prestige date by Mabern, Greasy Kid Stuff, for a CD reissue titled simply Wailin' , which inexplicably leaves out "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby." Until someone decides to release Mabern's complete Prestige recordings in digital format (which would be really desirable, by the way), this disc is well worth picking up, though. Mabern, who's an octogenarian at the time of this writing, has built up quite a following in Japan (he's even cut some albums for Japanese labels) and has fortunately kept recording steadily, his last session as a leader so far dating from 2014. A classy hard bopper who deserves wider recognition.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Victoria Spivey: Multitalented Blues and Jazz Songstress

Houston-born Victoria Spivey was a woman of many talents. She could sing, write songs, and play several instruments, among them the piano, the organ, and the ukulele. Though there was a hiatus in the 1950s, her recording career spans about five decades, from 1926, when she cut her first record, "Black Snake Blues," up until the 1970s. Fortunately for us, she was among the many blues performers who were rediscovered during the folk revival of the '50s and '60s, and she made quite a few recordings for her own Spivey Records label late in her career, including such interesting albums as Songs We Taught Your Mother (Alberta Hunter is also on this one) and The Queen and Her Knights, with Lonnie Johnson, Little Brother Montgomery, and Memphis Slim. Spivey influenced many performers in the '60s, among them Bob Dylan (who plays harmonica on one of her albums), Paul Butterfield, and Elvin Bishop, but her reputation as a blues singer rests primarily on the many fine recordings she committed to wax between the '20s and the '40s. On these, her attractive voice shows that she's been listening to both Bessie Smith and Annette Hanshaw, and, as is the case with the Empress, Spivey's brand of blues has a strong jazz component (great jazzmen like Henry Red Allen appear on some of her sides), and many of her records feature hot solos and risque lyrics.

The sexually suggestive nature of many of Spivey's lyrics shouldn't be surprising when we bear in mind that she came out of a '20s Houston scene that often forced performers to play hangouts of ill repute. In the late 1920s, before concentrating on a career as a recording artist, Spivey tried songwriting, but after moving to New York City, she soon became a regular in the studios of major labels such as Decca, Vocalion, and Victor. Her discs proved quite popular with the record-buying public, and this led to several roles in black musical revues. Spivey also found time to tour and record with bands led by Louis Armstrong, but at some point she decided to quit secular music, her successful recording career, and the small nightclubs where she was performing to concentrate on singing only religious material in church. No examples of this stage of her career seem to exist, but as mentioned, she went back into the recording studio quite often in the '60s and '70s before her death, which occurred on October 3, 1976 in New York. Some of her folk-boom albums (Songs We Taught Your Mother, The Blues Is Life) are available on CD, and luckily, the Document label has reissued her classic sides chronologically. A good sample of her '20s and '30s recordings is The Victoria Spivey Collection 1926-37 (Acrobat), a very recommendable two-disc introduction to her best work. Although she's perhaps not talked about as much as other classic blues singers, Victoria Spivey produced a highly consistent body of work that should satisfy both blues and jazz enthusiasts.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Sarah Vaughan Swings Again, 1967

Not that Sarah Vaughan had quit swinging by 1967, but she had been concentrating on more pop-oriented albums such as Viva! Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan Sings the Mancini Songbook, Pop Artistry, and The New Scene in 1965-66 alone. For her final Mercury outing, she was back on jazz territory with a swinging big band session that was issued under the very appropriate title of Sassy Swings Again. The psychedelic look of the album's cover has more to do with the time period than with the music in its grooves. For this project, Vaughan enlisted the help of four different arrangers—Bob James, J.J. Johnson, Manny Albam, and Thad Jones—but the results are surprisingly consistent, as though only one arranger had been employed. The sessions, held over two days in January 1967, included such top jazzmen as Kai Winding, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Newman, Benny Golson, and Phil Woods, so the sound is powerful and exciting. In the company of these outstanding musicians, Sassy was definitely swinging again.

The energy is evident from the very first track, a scat-filled version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," taken at a characteristically breakneck tempo. The song selection is full of classic standards ("S'posin'," "I Want to Be Happy," "Take the A Train"), all of them sung at a medium or fast pace, without much room for ballads. Vaughan even extracts some swing out of Irving Berlin's "All Alone," which Frank Sinatra had recently used as the title track of one of his lesser-known slow albums, and digs deep for some rarely heard numbers like Richard Rodgers's "The Sweetest Sounds," Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's "On the Other Side of the Tracks," and Alan Jay Lerner's "I Had a Ball." Sassy's elegantly swinging reading of the Tony Bennett hit "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is impressive, and she also has a chance to prove that she can tackle a blues standard convincingly on "Everyday I Have the Blues," one of the standout tracks on the LP. This isn't Vaughan's best-remembered album (in fact, it wasn't until a Facebook friend recently alerted me to it that I was even reminded that it existed; thanks Luis!) but it's a wholly satisfying jazz date with some high-class sidemen that deserves a serious listen.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Si Zentner: The Thinking Man's Bandleader

Some critics have tended to perpetuate a rather common misconception about the Big Band Era—namely, that big bands virtually disappeared in the years immediately following WWII. Though it's undeniable that many orchestras had folded or at least given up touring by the late 1940s and early '50s, it's no less true that some of the best of them (Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman) remained active and that several noteworthy big band albums were recorded in the '50s and '60s. Not to mention that this style of music was ubiquitous on TV variety shows, some of which, like the Dorsey Brothers Show, were actually hosted by famous bandleaders. The case of Brooklyn-born Si Zentner is a little different. As Leo Walker says in The Big Band Almanac (Zentner's is the only name listed under the letter Z in that essential reference book, by the way), "at a time when most everyone else was holding postmortems for the big bands, Si Zentner decided that someone should fight back to prove there was still life in the business" (432). And fight back he did, and at least for a few years, he was quite successful.

Zentner's orchestra was a latter-day big band if there ever was one, having been formed as late as 1957. Before that, the trombonist had worked with several name bands, including Abe Lyman, Harry James, Les Brown, and Jimmy Dorsey, and had spent some time as a studio musician at MGM. Zentner's outfit toured extensively, doing a seemingly endless series of one-nighters, until in 1959 they played the Hollywood Palladium, caught the attention of the critics—the reviews of the band in Downbeat were particularly encouraging—and for a while it appeared that Zentner and his gang were on their way to prove that there was, indeed, life in the business. They even scored a hit with their swinging reading of the Hoagy Carmichael classic "Up a Lazy River" and cut a respectable number of interesting albums for labels such as Liberty and RCA. By the mid-'60s, Zentner, who had started his band in Los Angeles, settled in Las Vegas, eventually working as musical director at the Tropicana Hotel and at some point backing Mel Torme on some of his personal appearances there. His last album for Liberty was issued in 1967, and after a long hiatus, Zentner reassembled his orchestra as late as the 1990s for live performances and occasional recordings.

Zentner, who spent most of his life championing the big band idiom and trying to prove its commercial viability, passed away from leukemia in 2000. Fortunately, several of his LPs have been reissued on CD: a couple of two-fers that collate on the one hand Suddenly It's Swing and The Swingin' Eye, and on the other, A Thinking Man's Band and Waltz in Jazz Time constitute particularly appropriate introductions to his work. On these albums the musicianship is impressive, the interplay between the different sections of the band is flawless, and the charts are intelligent and full of interesting surprises, such as the growling trumpet on "I Found a New Baby," the saxophone solo on "When a Gypsy Makes His Violin Cry," and the high-octane swinging tempo on "The Swingin' Eye." On these and other records, Zentner's music is always witty and engaging; it has aged extremely well and is thoroughly listenable all these years later. Rather than a mere footnote in the history of big band swing, Si Zentner is a fine bandleader in need of rediscovery.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Carol Sloane's Favorite Male Vocalists

Shirley Horn and Carol Sloane, 1983 (Photo: Carol Sloane)
A few days ago, during a brief conversation on Facebook, I asked singer Carol Sloane who her favorite male jazz vocalists are, and here's what she replied: "They're not all jazz singers, but I'd say Fred Astaire, Joe Mooney, Bill Henderson, Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, Frank Sinatra (of course), and Walter Pidgeon." That last name was a surprise to me, and Carol, who must have sensed it, added: "Yes, the actor—he had a gentle delivery much in keeping with many of his movie roles, and he received a Tony nomination for his part in the Broadway show Take Me Along in the 1950s." On the strength of some videos I've found on YouTube (here he's singing Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" in 1924), there's no denying that Carol is right about Pidgeon's vocal abilities, and it's definitely our loss that he never got around to recording a whole album like other actors with a penchant for singing, such as, say, Maureen O'Hara and George Sanders. Let's comment briefly on the rest of the names Carol mentioned as her favorites, who are all on my own list of top vocalists, hands down.

Fred Astaire
I've always thought that Fred Astaire was a natural jazz singer, even though he's hardly ever praised for his vocalizing as much as he is for his legendary dancing—but then there are plenty of jazz elements in his dancing moves, not to mention that he was a favorite of most great songwriters, such as Berlin, Porter, and the Gershwins. Though I love his recordings from the '30s and '40s, on which he was often accompanied by fantastic studio bands, the pinnacle of his work as a singer is his 1952 meeting with an all-star quartet led by Oscar Peterson, released as The Astaire Story, an album about which I've written here. Admired by great names such as Sinatra and Tony Bennett, singer-accordionist-organist Joe Mooney was a lot of fun to listen to on the early records he made as part of the Sunshine Boys (a group seemingly modeled on Paul Whiteman's Rhythm Boys) yet, in my opinion, his best album is 1956's Lush Life, cut for Atlantic. Here we can listen to his intimate style and gloriously raspy voice in a small-group setting, doing ten excellent songs and playing the organ. Those who enjoy this record should also look for a CD that includes two albums Moody made in the '60s for Columbia entitled The Greatness and The Happiness of Joe Mooney, both highly recommended. Though he never achieved the recognition that should have been rightfully his, Bill Henderson was a wondrously hip, soulful, bluesy singer whose standout album is a 1963 collaboration with, yet again, the Oscar Peterson Trio. The record is an absolute classic that every jazz fan should own, with Peterson in fine form and Henderson doing what he did best—infusing timeless standards (and even, oddly enough, the country classic "You Are My Sunshine") with a heaping helping of soul.

Bill Henderson
Very few singers in the history of pop and jazz were as classy as Nat King Cole, whose voice and phrasing were like no one else's (though Sammy Davis, Jr. could do an accurate impersonation of the King and Oscar Peterson himself was greatly indebted to him on the few occasions when he sang). Cole's pop records were so successful that it's sometimes easy to overlook his contributions as a jazz pianist fronting his pioneering trio. My favorite Cole album is After Midnight, cut in 1956 for Capitol, an LP that marks a return to the classic King Cole Trio sound, with plenty of engaging vocals and featuring some outstanding guest stars. I've written about this album more in depth here. Like Cole, Joe Williams was another class act, a singer who was equally at home singing the blues and standards out of the Songbook. As a matter of fact, his albums—most of them absolutely recommendable—usually fall under one of those two categories. His 1956 Verve collaboration with the Basieites, Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, is one of the gems of his discography, while A Man Ain't Supposed to Cry, recorded two years later for Roulette, is a lovely collection of heart-wrenching torch songs. Finally, Frank Sinatra, an American icon about whom pretty much everything has been said thousands of times over. Almost all the records he made for Capitol are absolutely essential, and so is a great deal of his work for Reprise, not to mention the many beautiful sides he cut for Columbia in the '40s and his earlier work as featured vocalist with Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. Recommending something by Sinatra isn't easy, then, because there's too many great titles to choose from. One of Sinatra's lesser-known Capitol efforts is the minimalist Close to You, a 1957 LP on which he's accompanied by the Hollywood String Quartet, with deliciously delicate arrangements by Nelson Riddle. This is really a lovely package, and the one that's perhaps most in need of rediscovery among Sinatra's concept albums. It's always nice to chat with Carol Sloane, a fine singer whose own work is always tasteful and engaging. Perhaps next time we'll ask her about her favorite female jazz vocalists!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Lester Young & Teddy Wilson, 1956

Since I'm currently re-reading Teddy Wilson's excellent autobiography, Teddy Wilson Talks Jazz, I've given myself the chance to rediscover the many LPs by the great pianist that I own. I first heard of Wilson via Benny Goodman, as he was a member of the swing clarinetist's groundbreaking Trio and Quartet in the 1930s, alongside Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton. One of the most respected pianists in jazz history, Wilson enjoyed a long, successful career and recorded extensively. One of my favorites among his many albums is Pres and Teddy, a reunion with tenor saxophone legend Lester Young cut for Verve in 1956. Pres and Teddy had worked together on countless occasions throughout their careers, most notably on the series of outstanding sessions they recorded for Columbia with Billie Holiday in the '30s and '40s. No wonder, then, that there's such chemistry between the two on this album, something that is evident from the first few bars of the opening track, a peppy reading of "All of Me" that finds Young at some point briefly quoting from the Harry Nemo ballad "'Tis Autumn." The album was recorded in New York City in one single session on January 13, 1956, and producer Norman Granz stayed true to his usual practice of giving free rein to both musicians, who feel completely at ease in a quartet setting with bassist Gene Ramey and drummer Jo Jones. The repertoire is strictly comprised of standards, a familiar territory that offers Teddy and Pres the chance to improvise freely.

Wilson, Young, and Jo Jones
Though Ramey and Jones do a superb job supporting the two leaders—and Jones even gets a couple of brief opportunities to solo—the main emphasis is on tenor and piano, with plenty of room for Young and Wilson to shine. Some of the selections ("Love Me or Leave Me," "Taking a Chance on Love") are taken at a medium or fast tempo and are often introduced by Wilson's elegant piano, which sooner or later gives way to Young's tasteful contributions on tenor. Just three years away from the end of his life, Pres is still in fine form here, and his playing is never less than impressive. Richard Whiting and Leo Robin's "Louise" sounds like a bit of an odd choice, since it isn't a tune that often crops up on jazz albums of the period, but our two men work wonders with it by taking it at an agreeably bouncy pace. But it's the two true ballads, "Our Love Is Here to Stay" and particularly "Prisoner of Love," that catch our attention as the highlights of the set. The musical understanding between Wilson and Young is absolutely flawless, and the tenorist's breathy, soulful approach to both tunes is especially appropriate. The 1986 CD reissue (which is the one I'm playing while writing this) adds a Pres original, "Pres Returns," that didn't make it onto the original LP, a bluesy melody that affords both Young and Wilson a great deal of space to improvise. Overall, this is a highly satisfying encounter between two jazz greats that is so good one wishes it were longer.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Coleman Hawkins Quartet: Today and Now, 1962

In his fan-club website, Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren recently reviewed one of Coleman Hawkins's late-career albums, the often underappreciated Today and Now (go here, then check out the 26 April 2016 entry). Says Lundgren, "It's a classic jazz recording which must surely rank as one of the best-sounding albums ever made. Today and Now is perhaps not the most obvious choice for many of Hawkins' fans, but it's definitely one of my all-time favorites. Everything on this disc sounds wonderfully good, and I wonder if I've ever heard a better sax sound on record. . . The music is generally on the soft side, which makes it the ideal record to sit back and relax to." Lundgren is definitely right on all counts: the sound of this album is crisp and clear, the song choices favor a slower, more relaxing mood over uptempo swingers, and yet, the record remains one of the least discussed and remembered in Hawkins's discography. By the time he cut these seven tracks at the Rudy Van Gelder studio in 1962, the Hawk had long been regarded as a jazz legend, one of the leaders of the stylistic transition from swing to bop, and was revered by anyone who ever picked up a saxophone. He was also pushing sixty, had developed a drinking problem, and the quality of his recorded output had become rather erratic. No matter, though—when he was in good form, Hawkins could still make the magic happen, particularly in a small-group setting. And on these two sessions, the Hawk sounds relaxed, engaged, and in complete command of the instrument.

Today and Now is one of Hawkins's three albums for Impulse (the other two are Desafinado and Wrapped Tight) and it was recorded over the course of two sessions in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, on September 9 and 11, 1962. These two dates find Hawkins on tenor saxophone in the company of Tommy Flanagan on piano, Major Holley on bass, and Eddie Locke on drums. It's an excellent quartet, but from the beginning it becomes clear that Hawkins is the main attraction. The repertoire is rather unusual, with a few swinging tracks thrown in among the ballads. The opener, the traditional tune "Go Lil' Liza," is a good excuse for Hawkins to improvise on the agreeable melody, with a couple of solos from Holley (played arco) and Flanagan, who is always classy and engaging. "Swingin' Scotch" is basically a series of variations on the Scottish air "Loch Lomond," and the old evergreen "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" is taken at a pleasing light tempo by the quartet. In the Hawk's hands, the old-timer "Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet" becomes a soulful, bluesy affair, and the three remaining tracks (the ballads "Quintessence," "Don't Love Me," and "Love Song from Apache") are definitely the highlights of the album, even if "Apache" may seem like an unlikely choice at first. On all three, but particularly on Quincy Jones's "Quintessence" and the little-known "Don't Love Me," Hawkins sounds relaxed and introspective, with a breathiness of tone that is perfectly suited to the tunes. As on the rest of the album, the accompaniment by Flanagan, Holley, and Locke is superb. As Lundgren rightly points out, this album is a good choice for relaxation, and its overall high quality, I would add, makes it deserving of more praise and critical attention.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Giant Steps: Woody Herman in 1973

By 1973, bandleader and occasional vocalist Woody Herman could look back on several decades of memorable recordings and consistently outstanding bands, the numerous editions of his Herds that he'd led over the years. It had been an amazing career, though full of vicissitudes and financial ups and downs, all the way back to those earliest days of the Swing Era, when his orchestra was dubbed "The Band That Plays the Blues" because of its appealing blues-tinged sound. Herman's recorded output was also full of ground-breaking recordings, such as those featuring the saxophone section known as the Four Brothers, which included, among others, legendary names  like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, and Herbie Steward. Herman had been celebrated for his willingness to listen to new ideas, try out different arrangements, and showcase the budding talents of the younger musicians within his bands, thereby becoming instrumental in bridging generation gaps in jazz. To a certain extent, his open-mindedness had allowed him to make music that remained current and exciting throughout the decades, way past the demise of the Big Band Era. It had been an amazing career, I say, and Herman was regarded as a living legend of jazz, but that wasn't enough for him. So that year he went into the studio with his big band and recorded one of his most successful, forward-looking albums for Fantasy—Giant Steps.

The record is absolutely fantastic, a creative whole that is even more engaging than the sum of its parts, an LP that sounds modern because it is modern and that features Herman surrounded by a group of excellent musicians including guitarist Joe Beck, bassist Wayne Darling, percussionist Ray Barretto, trombonist Jim Pugh, trumpeter Bill Stapleton, and saxophonist Frank Tiberi, among others. The song choice is rather eclectic, from the opening track, Chick Corea's "La Fiesta," a high-powered, Latin-flavored tune that sounds incredibly exciting in the hands of this band, to "The Meaning of the Blues," a lovely slow-paced number written by Bobby Troup that is only tangentially related to the blues form. In between there are highlights such as the funky "Freedom Jazz Dance," driven by the horns and the electric bass, "The First Thing I Do," with Beck adding some wah-wah effects to his electric guitar, and of course, the version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" that lends its title to the album. Herman's reading of this Trane classic is so good that one can't help but wish someone had kept the producer from fading the song out. Gems like these somehow deserve to last longer than a mere 4 minutes. Thad Jones's "A Child Is Born" sets an atmospheric mellow mood that is the perfect counterpoint to the explosive "Giant Steps," which precedes it. Herman even has time to step into contemporary pop territory on Leon Russell's "A Song for You," and the album is brought to a close with a swinging rendition of Alan Broadbent's "Be-Bop and Roses." Giant Steps is one of the many highlights of Herman's career, an LP that has definitely stood the test of time, and listening to it today, it's not hard to see why it was awarded a Grammy back in 1974.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Jazz Flash News: Suncoast Jazz Classic Festival, November 18-20, 2016

A couple of days ago I received a flyer in the mail announcing the 26th Annual Suncoast Jazz Classic, which will be held in Clearwater Beach, FL, between November 18-20. Two days prior to the official opening of the festival, on November 16, the latest edition of The Four Freshmen will be appearing at the Largo Cultural Center. Performers who will be taking part in the event come from all over the U.S. and Canada, and their styles range from gypsy jazz to swing, English trad jazz, samba jazz, and even avant garde. So, as you can see, there's a little bit to please all sorts of jazz fans. Local artists such as Nate Najar, Bob Price, the Bill Alfred Classic Jazz Band, and Betty Comora ("an eclectic entertainer") will be joined by musicians hailing from New York (Ken Peplowski, The Midiri Brothers), Illinois (The Fat Babies), California (High Sierra), St. Louis (Cornet Chop Suey), Michigan (Dave Bennett Quartet), and Canada (Climax Jazz Band). The venues for most of these appearances are the Sheraton Sand Key Resort and the Marriott Suites on Sand Key, and anyone interested in more information about the festival, ticket prices, and hotel rates can access it here. If you find yourself in the Sunshine State in mid-November, this may be the event for you!

Clarinetist Ken Peplowski is one of several participants in this year's Suncoast Jazz Classic