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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan in Denmark, 1977 & 1980

Archie Shepp
Known as a stalwart of the type of experimentation that led to free jazz in the 1960s, saxophonist Archie Shepp made a series of artistically successful albums such as Four for Trane, Fire Music, New Thing at Newport, and The Magic of Ju-Ju throughout that decade. In a tireless effort to break new ground, Shepp would sometimes include poetry declamations in his records and became increasingly interested in African rhythms. There was also a political side to his work, particularly in some of his LPs from the late '60s and early '70s (Poem for Malcolm, Attica Blues), which were often conceived as protests against social injustice and racial discrimination. Though Shepp's interest in African music never waned, his emphasis on political messages decreased as the '70s wore on. It was around this time that he started to appear and record frequently in Europe, including two collaborations with pianist Horace Parlan cut in Denmark for the SteepleChase label. The first one of these, 1977's Goin' Home, explores the relationship between jazz and gospel music, featuring deeply moving and respectful readings of spirituals such as "Amazing Grace," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen," all of them approached from the perspective of jazz.

Horace Parlan

Upon its release, the album garnered mixed reviews from critics, yet Shepp and Parlan were obviously satisfied with the results, because three years later, in 1980, they entered the studio again to record a sequel—Trouble in Mind, a similar project focusing this time on secular music. This new collaboration is a tribute to the classic blues tradition of the '20s and '30s, as performed by legendary artists of the genre such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.  From the opening track, Smith's "Backwater Blues," it seems evident that we're listening to a very special album by two jazzmen who have a thorough understanding of the roots of African American music, which they reinterpret in a uniquely personal way. Parlan supports Shepp's saxophone (he plays both tenor and soprano) very effectively and with elegance, and Shepp improvises on the melodies of these classic songs with delicacy and reverence. There are nods to W.C. Handy ("Careless Love"), Earl Hines ("Blues in Thirds"), and Leroy Carr ("How Long Blues"), as well as subtle interpretations of "See See Rider" and "Trouble in Mind." The melancholic, appropriately funereal reading of "St. James Infirmary" is one of the most memorable tracks of a fabulous album that finds Shepp and Parlan perfectly in tune with each other. Overall, this is a highly emotional collaboration, a joint exploration of the sounds that lie at the very core of the musical makeup of both participants. It's stripped-down music that catches the listener's attention for its sheer beauty, quiet intimacy, and heartfelt immediacy.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Lyle Ritz and Ukulele Jazz

Sure, the ukulele was widely used in the 1920s by vocalists like Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards and Johnny Marvin to accompany their own singing, and some of them, like Edwards and Marvin, were very proficient on the little instrument. Yet it was Lyle Ritz that brought the ukulele into modern jazz in the 1950s, in particular on How About Uke?, a Verve album recorded over two different sessions in September 1957. Cleveland-born Ritz began playing the ukulele while in college in California, but despite cutting two albums on that instrument in the '50s, he actually garnered a strong reputation as a session musician in the '60s and '70s, appearing on bass on countless pop records with the likes of the Beach Boys, the Monkees, and Herb Alpert, to name but three examples. Being a member of the famous Wrecking Crew helped him pay his bills, but his first love was the ukulele. He never quit playing it, and over the years he built a steady following in Hawaii, which would lead to a sort of revival of interest in his ukulele music in the '80s and '90s, when he began appearing at festivals and making occasional records.

Lyle Ritz (right) with Ray Charles
It was guitarist Barney Kessel that brought Ritz to the attention of Verve Records, and How About Uke? was Ritz's first album for the label (the other one he cut, 1959's 50th State Jazz, is also worth looking up). The ukulele ace is accompanied here by Don Shelton on flute, Red Mitchell on bass, and Gene Estes on drums. Though Shelton takes several flute solos, the spotlight is on Ritz, and that's perhaps why the instrumentation is so sparse and the lineup features no brass instruments. Among the 13 tracks on the album there are only two Ritz originals ("Ritz Cracker" and "Sweet Joan"), the rest being tried-and-true standards like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Sunday," and "How About You?" (of course, the title of the LP makes reference to the latter). On the sprightly reading of "Solamente Una Vez (You Belong to My Heart)" and "Tangerine," the quartet goes into Latin territory, and they're equally effective on ballads such as "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Little Girl Blue." Whether Ritz is playing chords behind Shelton's flute or improvising on the melody himself, his technique is so polished that he proves the ukulele can be a viable instrument to play jazz. In fact, Ritz's playing is so compelling that it's easy to forget that we're listening to a ukulele and not a guitar. Unfortunately, neither one of his two Verve outings (both have been reissued on CD by the Fresh Sound label) made any impact outside of Hawaii at the time. Even so, almost 60 years after they were recorded, these sessions have definitely stood the test of time and should be approached as something more than mere novelty items.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Count Basie in Stockholm with Louis Bellson, 1962

In 1962, drummer Sonny Payne was involved in a car accident and had to bow out of the Count Basie orchestra's impending tour of Sweden, forcing the Count to find a suitable replacement quickly. And a suitable bench man he did find when he hired the great Louis Bellson for the tour, which took the band all over Sweden, playing mostly in small towns but also in bigger cities like Gothenburg, Malmö, and of course, Stockholm. In the Swedish capital, Basie and his crew played a five-night engagement at Gröna Lunds Tivoli, which included both a nightly concert and a session strictly for dancers. Someone at Roulette Records had the good presence of mind to tape some of the music played at these sessions for dancers, and some of these tracks appeared on Basie in Sweden, which turned out to be Basie's final LP for the label—and a very enjoyable one at that.

Drummer Louis Bellson
At these more informal sessions, the band sounds extremely relaxed, inspired to take exciting solos, and properly propelled by Bellson's high-octane drumming. Though perhaps not quite as explosive as Payne, Bellson has a very personal flair for swinging, and his drumming always sounds classy and elegant. This later edition of the Atomic Basie band features a lineup full of legendary sidemen, among them reedmen Frank Wess and Frank Foster, trumpeters Thad Jones and Benny Bailey, trombonists Benny Powell and Ake Persson, and guitarist Freddie Green. As one would expect, there's plenty of swing to go around, from the album opener, "Little Pony," to its closer, "Peace Pipe," and many others in between ("Corner Pocket," "Splanky," "Four, Five Six"). It's almost a cliche now to describe the Basie outfit as a well-oiled swinging machine, and these recordings provide ample proof that there's a lot of truth behind that cliche. But the band can also take it easy whenever necessary, as on the rather subdued reading of Neal Hefti's "Plymouth Rock" or on the standard "April in Paris," the latter with some fine contributions by Thad Jones. Duke Ellington's "In a Mellotone" is another highlight of a live album full of highlights, and Basie even has room to spotlight vocalist Irene Reid's bluesy tribute to Bessie Smith on "Backwater Blues." The 1991 CD reissue, which has some very informative liner notes by Basie bio-discographer Chris Sheridan, includes four previously unreleased tracks, but the music is so good that it still leaves you hungry for more from this unique teaming of Basie and Bellson.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Svend Asmussen's 100th Birthday

On June 28 my daughter turned three years old, and on that same day legendary Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen celebrated 100 years on earth, a whole century devoted to his first love—jazz, particularly of the swing variety. Though not very well known in the U.S., Asmussen, who was born in Copenhagen into a wealthy family in 1916, is one of a handful of stellar jazz violinists, a group that also includes Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, and Stephane Grappelli (incidentally, Asmussen recorded with the latter two). Perhaps one of the reasons why Asmussen is largely overlooked this side of the pond is that he didn't appear in the States too often, but even so, he did earn the respect and admiration of jazz greats like Duke Ellington, John Lewis, and Benny Goodman, with all of whom he worked at some point in his long career. Asmussen showed an interest in music as a kid, and Venuti was actually an early influence on the violin. Yet a career in show business wasn't what his affluent parents had planned for him; however, the lure of the stage was too strong, and Asmussen decided to quit the dentistry degree he'd half-heartedly begun in order to concentrate on playing jazz professionally.  He made his first recordings in the 1930s, and in the sixty years that followed, he never looked back, recording regularly and steadily until health problems related to his advanced age forced him into retirement early in the new century.

To commemorate his 100th anniversary, Storyville Records has just released a 5-CD box set entitled The Incomparable Fiddler Svend Asmussen: 100 Years, which offers a panoramic view of his astounding career, from his earliest sides of the '30s, '40s, and '50s to recordings he made in 1996 in a quartet setting. The set showcases Asmussen's dazzling virtuosity on the violin, his unique sense of swing, and his elegant delivery, and finds him in the company of talented confrères like Ulrik Neumann, Svend Hauberg, Georges Arvanitas, and of course, Stuff and Stephane. The 1964-65 sessions with Grappelli are among the many highlights of the box, and four rare recordings with Smith from 1966 show the two of them jamming together and really having a blast. Also included is a DVD that features a 1986 live date at Copenhagen's Jazzhus Montmartre with Kenny Drew on piano, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums, which offers us a chance to see Asmussen in action. This new box set is definitely the perfect place to get an introduction to the incomparable legacy of Svend Asmussen, a man whose passion—and business, as the title of one of his classic sides states—is rhythm. Thanks for all the great music and happy century, Mr. Asmussen!