Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jazz Flashes Videocast # 1 - Bobby Hutcherson; Toots Thielemans; Dempsey Wright; Red Norvo

Toots Thielemans (1922-2016)
A few months ago, a couple of friends suggested to me that I should start a podcast or a videocast about jazz to post on YouTube and make available periodically in this blog. I gave it some thought, and the idea took me back to the time when I used to host a radio show with my wife in Nashville, TN, so I liked the suggestion right away. However, several personal things and projects I've been involved with this summer didn't leave me almost any free time to devote to planning the videocast. In the last couple of weeks, before the semester started at the university where I teach, I enjoyed a little more peace and quiet than usual, so I decided to give the videocast idea a try. Here's the result, the first installment of the Jazz Flashes Videocast:

On this edition of the videocast, I briefly discuss the careers of two recently deceased jazz greats, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and harmonica/guitar player Toots Thielemans. Moreover, I recommend two lesser-known albums that I've been playing quite a bit lately: The Wright Approach, by Oklahoma guitarist Dempsey Wright, and Red Plays the Blues, featuring an all-star group led by the great vibraphonist Red Norvo. I hope you enjoy this new section of Jazz Flashes, and if you do, it's my intention to create similar videocasts in the future, and hopefully do a more polished job than I did on this pilot installment!

NOTE: You may click on the names of each artist to access a track by that artist.

Bobby Hutcherson (1941-2016)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Cooking the Blues: The Buddy DeFranco Quintet on Verve, 1954

Buddy DeFranco
A graduate of the Big Band Era who played in orchestras led by Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco was responsible for bringing the clarinet into modernity. In the mid-1940s, at a time when the saxophone was quickly overtaking the clarinet as the most popular instrument in jazz, DeFranco was one of the few musicians to use the clarinet in a bebop context. Thanks mostly to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, the instrument had been extremely prominent during the heyday of swing, but the speed and complexity of bebop suddenly made it less than ideal for the new style. Taking many a cue from Charlie Parker, DeFranco worked hard to develop the technical ability required to play bebop clarinet in a successful and exciting manner. Born in Camden, NJ, in 1923, DeFranco was an almost obsessively disciplined musician who was constantly practicing and seeking new ways to improve his playing. One of the most forward-looking jazzmen of the '40s and with ample experience working with large combinations, from the '50s on he preferred to play in small-group settings, collaborating with the likes of Count Basie, Art Blakey, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson, among several others. DeFranco devoted his whole life to music, recording and touring regularly and often winning the yearly polls of the most renowned jazz publications. By the time of his passing in 2014, he'd recorded dozens of albums, the invaluable legacy of a man who was always striving to innovate.

His stint on Verve in the mid-'50s yielded some of the most interesting projects DeFranco ever tackled, in particular two albums he cut in a quintet setting in 1954—Cooking the Blues and Sweet & Lovely, recently reissued on CD as a two-fer by Poll Winners Records. Both of them are delightful outings that find DeFranco on clarinet in the company of pianist Sonny Clark (who also plays organ on some tracks), guitarist Tal Farlow, bassist Gene Wright, and drummer Bobby White. The concept behind both albums is pretty much the same: clever boppish renditions of well-known standards along with one original per LP (Wright's "Cooking the Blues" on the former and Clark's "Moe" on the latter). There's an unmistakable warmth to the music, and the rapport between the five musicians makes for some pleasant listening. No wonder that both discs received five-star ratings from Down Beat upon their release in 1958, four years after the sessions actually took place. Of course, the two of them are essential, but in my opinion, the more bluesy component on Cooking the Blues makes it stand out. It includes beautifully relaxed readings of "I Can't Get Started," "Stardust," and "Little Girl Blue," and the title track, based on a catchy riff dreamed up by Wright, offers all participants a good chance for some inspired soloing. "How About You" is taken at a rather brisk pace and finds DeFranco tirelessly playing around with the melody, while "Indian Summer," played at a tempo that's faster than usual, makes for a very appropriate closing. Unfortunately, the quintet wouldn't make any more records after these sessions (Clark died only nine years after, in 1963), yet these two LPs are a clear testament to the enduring appeal of this band's work.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Earl Hines on Impulse, 1966

Earl "Fatha" Hines
One of the most important, innovative pianists in jazz history, Earl "Fatha" Hines influenced virtually every keyboard player who ever had a chance to listen to him, among them many greats such as Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson. Born in Duquesne, near Pittsburgh, PA, in 1905, Hines was playing piano professionally by the 1920s, as a member of several different bands, and working off and on with the likes of Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong, with whom he participated in some of the groundbreaking Hot Five sessions of the late '20s. A few years later, when it came time for Hines to lead his own orchestras, he proved to have a good ear for recognizing talent, and his outfits were always full of excellent musicians such as Trummy Young, Budd Johnson, Ray Nance, and a vocalist who would soon turn into a jazz/pop idol—Billy Eckstine. Critics have often hailed Hines as one of the first modern pianists, He never failed to swing with ease, and his bluesy style was definitely swinging, forward-looking, and flamboyant, making him one of the direct links between the old school of stride piano and the more modern sounds of swing. Hines survived the 1950s by inflecting his swinging style with the strains of Dixieland jazz and spent several years catering to the followers of the decade's Dixieland revival. And that takes us to the album we're reviewing today, perhaps one of the lesser-known entries in his prolific and enormously rich discography.

Cut for Impulse on two different dates in January 1966, the record is called Once Upon a Time, yet it might very well have been titled something like "Earl Hines Meets the Ellingtonians," since on these seven tracks he's surrounded by a host of Duke Ellington sidemen, though the Duke himself is absent. The collective personnel features, among others, great musicians like trumpeters Cat Anderson, Ray Nance, and Clark Terry; trombonist Lawrence Brown; reedmen Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, and Pee Wee Russell; bassist Aaron Bell; and drummers Sonny Greer and Elvin Jones. As critic Stanley Dance tells us in the liner notes, the idea was "to bring together past and present members of the Duke Ellington orchestra" and have them play alongside Hines and other greats like Russell and Elvin Jones. And the concept works perfectly: the material includes Ellington standards such as "Black and Tan Fantasy" and an explosive reading of "Cottontail," and each solo that unfolds is pure bliss. Both Hodges (the title track and the closer, "Hash Brown") and Hines himself (the lovely "You Can Depend on Me") showcase their talents as composers, and selections like Lionel Hampton's "The Blues in My Flat" (with some inspired singing by Nance) place the accent on the blues. The beautiful ballad "Fantastic, That's You" receives a quartet treatment by Hines, Hamilton, Bell, and Jones, and the Fatha sounds extremely comfortable both in a small-group setting and within the larger band, leading everyone forward with energy and authority. When it comes to albums by Hines, there's evidently a wealth of material to choose from, but this mid-'60s meeting with the Ellingtonians should be high on the list of must-haves by the Fatha.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

John Coltrane's Giant Steps at the Nashville Jazz Workshop

Aylor, Finnie, Nardone, and Aliquo
When one lives in rural northwest Tennessee, there aren't quite enough opportunities available to enjoy good live jazz. However, just a couple of hours to the east there's the Nashville Jazz Workshop, on Adams St., in the Germantown area of the Tennessee capital. The Workshop is a haven for jazz fans and musicians in a city that's usually better known for other kinds of music. Last Saturday night, as part of a series focusing on great jazz albums, the Workshop presented a quartet led by tenorist Don Aliquo and featuring pianist Jody Nardone, drummer Marcus Finnie, and bassist Jack Aylor. The band, which got together exclusively for this gig, played all the tracks on John Coltrane's classic 1959 LP Giant Steps, one of the most celebrated of Trane's fabulous discography. I attended the early show (at 6:00 p.m.; there was also a late show at 8:30) with my wife, my daughter and some close relatives and enjoyed some fantastic music played to a few dozen people sitting at tables in a small, welcoming venue that seats around 100. Pittsburgh-born tenor saxophonist Aliquo has lived in Nashville for almost 20 years and is a professor at Middle Tennessee State University, as well as a much in-demand jazzman around the Music City and all over the country. As the albums he's recorded so far suggest, he is influenced not only by Coltrane, but also by other sax greats like Dexter Gordon and Stanley Turrentine. His flawless technique and uncanny ability to create engaging solos at a breakneck speed make him the perfect choice to handle Coltrane's complex, highly demanding compositions. Yet Aliquo can also play in a sensitive sensual manner, as he did on the ballad "Naima," and as some of the tunes from his recent collaboration with pianist Beegie Adair (Too Marvelous for Words) demonstrate.

This blog's author with Don Aliquo
Aliquo was in fine company last Saturday at the Workshop. New Jersey native Nardone has also worked with countless jazz legends and displays an attractive, energetic piano style that worked well both in support of Aliquo's tenor and when it came time to solo. The wistful introduction he played on "Naima" was one of the highlights of the concert. Finnie, who hails from Memphis, is a very accomplished drummer with a great deal of experience both in and outside of jazz. His dynamic approach and spectacular drumming constantly met with the general approval and applause of the audience and helped propel the quartet's inspired performances. Finally, Aylor, by far the youngest musician on the stage on Saturday night, and currently a jazz student at New York's Columbia University, is quickly becoming one of the most promising young jazz bassists in his hometown of Nashville. Aylor has a natural sense of rhythm and blended perfectly well with the rest of the rhythm section, handling Paul Chambers's often complex bass solos with great ease. The evening began with a sprightly version of the title track, which set the tone for the rest of the concert, with Aliquo leading the quartet in an authoritative but always generous fashion, stepping to one side of the stage whenever he wasn't soloing in order to allow the rest of the musicians to take the spotlight. Though the idea was to play tribute to the legendary LP, the band didn't try to merely imitate the great Coltrane quartet, but rather they reinterpreted its timeless tunes (from "Cousin Mary" to the flurry of notes that is "Countdown" to a spirited reading of "Spiral" to the intriguing "Syeeda's Song Flute" to "Naima," the only slow number on the album) with great reverence and respect. Showing he's also an educator, Aliquo even took the time to briefly introduce some of the tracks, providing a little background information that added to the audience's enjoyment of the music that was being presented. The evening came to a close not long after a rousing drum solo by Finnie on "Mr. P.C.," the bluesy album closer. In short, it was a lovely event at the Nashville Jazz Workshop that served not only to showcase a magnificent live performance of a legendary album but also to introduce some of us in the audience to four musicians of different backgrounds and ages brought together by a common love of classic jazz.

The quartet on stage at the Nashville Jazz Workshop

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Clora Bryant on Mode Records, 1957

Influenced by the likes of Roy Eldridge, Harry James, Charlie Shavers, and Dizzy Gillespie, for whom she professed a lifelong admiration, Texas-born Clora Bryant was one of the few female trumpeters who felt equally comfortable as an instrumentalist and a vocalist. In fact, her singing is somewhat akin to her playing: she sounds swinging and daring on uptempo numbers and wistful and restrained on ballads. Born in the small Texas town of Denison in 1927, Bryant showed an interest in the trumpet early on, and after graduating from high school she began touring with various all-girl bands. By the mid-1940s she'd relocated to California, where she had the chance to play with prominent names such as Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Sonny Criss, Dexter Gordon, and even Charlie Parker. At different moments in her career she played in Las Vegas and graced the trumpet sections of big bands led by Duke Ellington, Billy Williams, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Stan Kenton. In an interview with writer Linda Dahl, Bryant has discussed the obstacles she's had to face in her professional career, many of them related to her gender and her race, as well as her choice of instrument: "Being a black woman and playing trumpet—that's three things I consider against me. If I played piano, I don't think sex or race would enter into it. With the wind instruments, though, there's competition, period. No matter what color or what sex, there's a lot of competition in the trumpet section!"

In 1957, Bryant cut an album for the small Mode label entitled Gal with a Horn, which is the only one of her records currently available on CD (it's been reissued by V.S.O.P. Records). With a beautiful cover featuring a portrait of Bryant in black and blue, the album is a little too short at only eight tracks, and presents her playing trumpet and singing in the company of pianist Roger Fleming, bassist Ben Tucker, and drummer Bruz Freeman. This quartet is augmented by Walter Benton on tenor sax and Normie Faye on trumpet on some of the tracks. The program alternates between fast and slow numbers, all of them standards, showcasing Bryant's vocals and trumpet playing and with plenty of room for solos. On the album opener, "Gypsy in My Soul," Bryant plays with the melody for two full vocal choruses and then closes off the performance with a Gillespie-influenced trumpet solo. Her horn shines on a relaxed reading of "Makin' Whoopee" that features a fine piano solo by Fleming. "Man with a Horn," the tune referenced in the album title, is one of the moodiest performances on the set, while "Sweet Georgia Brown" has room for contributions from both Fleming and Benton. Everyone seems to be having a ball with a version of "Tea for Two" set to a cha-cha beat, followed by two Rodgers and Hart tunes ("This Can't Be Love" and "Little Girl Blue") that are tailor-made for Bryant. On "S'posin'," Bryant carries most of the weight, thus bringing the record to a close in style and proving that, though sadly under-recorded, she's an appealing trumpeter who deserves more critical attention.