Thursday, December 14, 2017

Jazz Flashes Podcast - Malcolm Macfarlane on Bing Crosby's Christmas Recordings

Despite the size and depth of his recorded output, forty years after his passing on a golf course in Madrid, Spain, Bing Crosby is still mostly remembered by the general public for his holiday recordings, especially the many he made for Decca Records between the 1930s and 1940s. These are classic readings of tunes that have become popular Yuletide standards, such as "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," and most of all, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." Several years ago I wrote about these here.

Malcolm Macfarlane, co-editor of the ICC's BING Magazine
As the holiday season approaches, I've had the chance to sit down with my friend Malcolm Macfarlane, British co-editor of BING Magazine, the journal of the International Club Crosby, to discuss at length the importance of Crosby's Christmas output. On this new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast, Malcolm and I cover Bing's classic Decca sides, but we also delve into his holiday movies (1942's Holiday Inn and 1954's White Christmas), Christmas radio and television specials, and other holiday albums he made in the 1960s and 1970s, including I Wish You a Merry Christmas (1962) and A Time to Be Jolly (1971). All of these are the perfect records to get in a holiday mood Crosby-style. If you're interested in listening to our whole 75-minute program, it's available at the end of this post.

Like every year, Jazz Flashes would like to wish our entire readership around the world the happiest (and jazziest) of holidays! Thanks for your attention!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Frank D'Rone on Mercury, 1960

Singer Frank D'Rone is perhaps one of the most obscure but definitely one of the most swinging vocalists of the 1950s and '60s. When he passed away in 2013 at age 81, his obituary in the Chicago Tribune noted that on the day he gave his last concert, he "didn't know whether he should go to the emergency room or the concert hall." Such was D'Rone's devotion to music. Born in Massachusetts in 1932 but raised in Rhode Island, D'Rone developed an early interest in the guitar, and by the early '50s he was making a name for himself in jazz clubs around Chicago, both as a singer and as a guitarist. Nat King Cole was particularly impressed by D'Rone's musicianship, to such an extent that he took the younger singer under his wing and helped him get a recording contract with Mercury.

In his book Jazz Singing, critic Will Friedwald observes that "D'Rone has a forties-type voice . . . in a fifties Capitol F[rank] S[inatra] setting . . . and generates genuine warmth" (331). This Sinatra connection is particularly evident in the album After the Ball, recorded in 1960, partly because the vivacious arrangements are by Billy May. The twelve songs on the LP are loosely tied by the concept of an imaginary conversation between two lovers who have just attended a dance. Perhaps not enough to speak of a concept album in the strict sense of the term, but the set works extremely well because both the songs and the charts are top notch, and the tracks range from a high-octane swinging reading of an old chestnut like Charles K. Harris's "After the Ball" to versions of well-known standards such as "My Melancholy Baby" and Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to," and even more contemporary tunes like Bart Howard's "Let Me Love You" and Matt Dennis's excellent "Will You Still Be Mine." Whether he's singing an all-out swinger or a longing ballad, the warmth of D'Rone's voice shines through as he, according to the anonymous liner notes, "re-lives the whole early-morning romance vocally." This is most definitely an album in need of rediscovery, and so is the name on its cover—Frank D'Rone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Spike Robinson Live in Denver, 1991

Spike Robinson
A recent post about tenorist Spike Robinson in Marc Myers's blog JazzWax made me dust off my Robinson records and enjoy them all over again after several years. And I have many, all of them wonderful, because as Myers rightly says, "there are no bad Spike Robinson recordings." Born in Kenosha, WI, in 1930, Robinson didn't pursue a full-time career as a jazz musician until he was in his fifties. His job as a mechanical engineer paid the bills, and he simply played occasionally at nights in Colorado, mostly in the Boulder and Denver areas. He'd begun on alto saxophone and clarinet but later switched to tenor, and his playing was cast in the Four Brothers mold of Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz. Robinson had a knack for ballads, but no matter what he plays, his warm tone always shines through. While in the Navy in the 1950s, he found himself in England, where he collaborated with some of the best British jazz musicians of the time, such as Victor Feldman and Johnny Dankworth, and where he even got to make his first records. Upon his return to civilian life in the United States, Robinson settled into his job as an engineer and wouldn't record again until about three decades later. His tours of the United Kingdom and other European countries in the 1980s created such a stir that he decided to quit his job and move there, making constant live appearances and recording quite prolifically for a variety of labels such as Capri, Hep, and Concord. Robinson passed away in England in 2001 at age 71.

Guitarist Mundell Lowe

One of my favorite albums by Robinson, Reminiscin' (Capri Records, 1992), captures him live at the Jazz Works in Denver in December 1991, in the company of guitarist Mundell Lowe, bassist Monty Budwig (one of his last appearances on record), and drummer Jake Hanna. This pianoless quartet setting brings out the Getz-like qualities of Robinson's playing, and both dates (December 12 and 15) find him exploring the higher registers of the tenor saxophone. The eight selections (all of them standards plus a bluesy original by Robinson) clock in at over six minutes, with plenty of opportunities for everyone to show their skills, particularly the leader and Lowe, who engage in long solos with the strong support of Budwig's bass. There are a quite a few peppy mid-tempo numbers, like the opener, "Dancing in the Dark," "The Girl Next Door," "Yours Is My Heart Alone," and a charming, Latin-flavored reading of "Without You." The excellent ballad "My Silent Love" is taken at a faster tempo than usual, but the album also showcases Robinson's breathy, Lester Young-influenced approach to slow tunes on Cole Porter's "Dream Dancing" and Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When." The album closer, Robinson's own "Blues for Sooz," is the perfect vehicle for the quartet to effortlessly delve into the blues idiom and simply have some fun playing together. Though rather forgotten today, Spike Robinson is one of the best saxophonists of the 1980s and '90s and deserves to be heard because he indeed never made a bad album.

Friday, August 11, 2017

New Releases: Roger Davidson's Prayer for Tomorrow (with interview)

French-born American jazz pianist Roger Davidson has spent his whole career dabbling in several different kinds of music, from Caribbean to tango to classical. But his true passion, both personally and musically, has always been Brazil, as we can infer from his latest album, Oração para amanhã/Prayer for Tomorrow (Soundbrush Records, 2017). Davidson was born in Paris but soon moved to the United States and settled in the northeast, where he has been performing throughout his life. His music, always inventive and eclectic, has merited the enthusiastic approval of renowned jazz critics such as Will Friedwald, who has written that Davidson's new record features "brilliant musicians [and] great music."

Hendrik Meurkens
Davidson, who started his own label, Soundbrush, as an outlet to release different types of music that he enjoys and is passionate about, is surrounded here by some of the best Brazilian musicians on the current New York scene. Recorded live at NYC's Zinc Bar over the course of several dates in May and October 2016, the album finds Davidson in the company of his new trio—bassist Eduardo Belo and drummer Adriano Santos. The addition of the German-born Hendrik Meurkens on harmonica and vibraphone is welcome indeed, particularly since it brings variety and class to the proceedings with the inclusion of an instrument, the harmonica, that one doesn't get to hear often enough on jazz records these days.

The album showcases twelve of Davidson's new Brazilian-styled compositions whose freshness and diversity of rhythms and approaches always keep the listener interested. The interplay between the four participants is flawless and always full of little surprises here and there, and Meurkens's vibraphone and harmonica blend perfectly well with the overall sound of the trio, making it fuller and more attractive. Prayer for Tomorrow is a welcome addition to the catalog of Davidson's Brazilian outings (The 2003 Richard Rodgers songbook Rodgers in Rio is another good example of what the pianist can do with Brazilian rhythms) and will definitely leave the listener longing for more. Fortunately, Davidson is already working on more music in a similar vein with this same trio. A few weeks ago, Davidson joined us from a French restaurant in New York for a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast. You may listen to the whole conversation, which was extremely interesting despite some minor technical issues, here:

Monday, July 10, 2017

Billy Taylor and Quincy Jones's Jazzy Take on My Fair Lady, 1957

Though perhaps he isn't as well remembered today as his achievements deserve, the career of North Carolina piano man Billy Taylor was full of milestones: in the 1950s he worked as house pianist at New York's Birdland; in the 1960s he became the first black musical director of a major network television program, on the popular David Frost Show; and in the 1970s, he earned a doctorate in music from the University of Massachusetts. Taylor was also very involved in spreading the good news about jazz on the radio and on television, but he always found time to play live and enter the studio regularly for over fifty years, recording a respectable amount of albums for labels such as Prestige, Savoy, Impulse, and Capitol, among others. Born in Greenville in 1921, Taylor moved to NYC in the early 1940s playing and sometimes recording alongside great jazzmen like Slam Stewart, Ben Webster, and violinists Stuff Smith and Eddie South. While working at Birdland, he formed his first trio, the setting in which he felt most comfortable throughout his career, and cut his first of many records as a leader. Taylor passed away in New York in 2010 at age 89, leaving behind a solid musical legacy that's in need of rediscovery.

Those who have criticized Taylor for not being innovative enough should listen closely to what I consider to be his best album—My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, recorded for Impulse in NYC over the course of three separate sessions in January and February 1957. This was at a time when the successful show by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe had been running on Broadway for about a year, and in fact, there was even a release party for the LP that was attended by most of the theatrical cast. Taylor's trio features bassist Earl May and drummer Ed Thigpen, but it's augmented for this project by several excellent horn players like trumpeter Ernie Royal, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, altoist Tony Ortega, and trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, to mention just four. The horns, arranged by none other than Quincy Jones, are a perfect complement for the elegant sound of Taylor's trio, which they enrich greatly. This is evident from the very first bars of the opening track, "Show Me," which also features Royal on trumpet prominently, and the rest of selections always leave room for solos by Taylor and his guests—Ortega shines on the ballad "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and Cleveland contributes a fine solo to the bouncy "Get Me to the Church on Time," for instance. Jones's charts underscore the jazz elements of great tunes like "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "On the Street Where You Live" without straying too far away from the melodies, and Taylor obviously feels extremely comfortable in the company of May and Thigpen, for whom he only has words of praise in the liner notes. The result is classic, boppish Taylor, a thoroughly satisfying album that serves as the perfect introduction to his music. Other jazz treatments of My Fair Lady, like those by Shelly Manne (for Contemporary, 1956, with André Prévin and Leroy Vinnegar) and Chet Baker (his 1959 Lerner & Loewe songbook for Riverside), may be better known, but Taylor's approach to that memorable musical is one of the most interesting ever recorded.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Two-Sentence Jazz Reviews, May-June 2017—Part II

Here's the second installment of the brief two-sentence reviews of jazz records that I heard during my recent European trip and that I originally published in my Facebook page.

The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn, Vol. 2 (Atlantic, 1959)

Recorded live in Lenox, MA, in the summer of 1958, this date showcases the usual elegance of the forward-thinking Modern Jazz Quartet along with tenorist Sonny Rollins on two tracks (on Vol. 1, recorded two years earlier at the same place, it's Jimmy Giuffre that guests). The carefully chosen set list works perfectly, mixing standards with tunes by John Lewis, Milt Jackson, and Charlie Parker, and the two tracks with Rollins ("Bags' Groove" and "Night in Tunisia") are the highlights of an album that is superb all around.

Oscar Peterson Trio + One (Mercury, 1964 / Verve, 2007)

Cut for Mercury in 1964, this is one of Oscar Peterson's most relaxed, bluesiest dates of the 1960s, featuring a special guest in trumpeter Clark Terry, who plays both flugelhorn and trumpet. Peterson's piano playing is characteristically dazzling, as usual, and the comfortable interplay between his trio (Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums) and Terry is a joy to hear, making this an essential entry in Peterson's vast, rich discography.

Jan Lundgren Trio—Svenska Landskap (Sittel, 2003 / Fog Arts, 2017)

This 2003 gem now available for digital download and streaming finds Jan Lundgren and his trio (Mattias Svensson on bass and Morten Lund on drums) on a musical journey around Sweden via jazz versions of traditional tunes and a couple of very appropriate Lundgren originals. The playing is swift and fresh on the uptempo tracks and lyrical and introspective on the ballads, and the album as a whole won't disappoint anyone who takes a chance on it. [You may read a more detailed Jazz Flashes review about this album here.]

Freddie Hubbard—Born to Be Blue (Pablo, 1982)

This is a lovely, very recommendable late-career album by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard in a percussion-laden sextet that also features the great Harold Land on tenor sax and flute. It features some very engaging uptempo numbers (like "Joy Spring," for instance) and some typically sensitive, lyrical ballad playing such as the beautiful title track.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Two-Sentence Jazz Reviews, May-June 2017—Part I

Due to a recent trip to Europe, I haven't had the chance to publish anything in Jazz Flashes, but I did write some very brief reviews of jazz albums I heard and/or purchased while overseas on my Facebook page. Now that I am back, I have compiled these two-sentence reviews on this post. I hope you find something to your liking among these outstanding records—and stay tuned for the forthcoming second part!

Buddy Tate and His Buddies (Chiaroscuro, 1994)

Saxophonist Buddy Tate's buddies—trumpeter Roy Eldridge, saxist Illinois Jacquet, pianist Mary Lou Williams, guitarist Steve Jordan, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Gus Johnson—are mostly jazz royalty, musicians who feel at ease in each other's company and enjoy playing together. This powerful, blues-drenched 1973 New York City date is truly a masterclass in first-rate small-group swing and blues, five selections that give all participants plenty of room to shine and surprise the listener with their inventiveness and exciting knack for improvisation.

Emil Viklicky—Live at the Box (Petr Bielicky, 2014 / Fog Arts, 2017)

Always the experimentalist, Czech jazz pianist Emil Viklicky feels at home distilling a mixture of jazz, classical, and Moravian folk music, as he does in Live at the Box, recently reissued for digital download and streaming by the Stockholm based Fog Arts label. This 2011 live date finds Viklicky in a trio setting, with Frantisek Uhlir on bass and Josef Vejvoda on drums, running through a varied selection of his highly personal compositions, the kind of eclectic jazz that surprises and grows on the listener with each play, with the highlight being bassist Uhlir's "Father's Blues."

Gerry Mulligan & Scott Hamilton—Soft Lights and Sweet Music (Concord, 1986)

Though perhaps not as well known as it deserves to be, this is a memorable tenor-baritone saxophone meeting between Scott Hamilton and Gerry Mulligan, cut in the mid-1980s for Concord in a quintet setting with Mike Renzi on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. It's a mostly uptempo affair with a fair share of Mulligan originals, and the mutual understanding between both saxophonists makes for some extremely satisfying listening.

Howard McGhee—Maggie's Back in Town (Contemporary, 1961)

After quite a spell away from the studios due to drug-related problems, trumpeter Howard McGhee came back on the jazz scene with this amazing album that showcases his bop-inflected playing in the company of fantastic musicians like pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Shelly Manne. The result is one of the best bop records of the early 1960s, an inventive, exciting run through a few standards, an original composition by McGhee, and two Teddy Edwards tunes, all of which makes it clear that Maggie (as McGhee was known to his friends) was definitely back!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Jazz Flashes Podcast: A Conversation with Jazz Discographer & Historian Noal Cohen

Rochester-born jazz discographer, historian, and musician Noal Cohen first heard the sounds of jazz at a very early age and was instantly hooked. And even though there were other interests in his life, he has devoted a big part of his time to listening to, playing, and studying this music, particularly the bop and hard bop of the 1950s and '60s. Now that he's retired and lives in Montclair, NJ, he has undertaken several important projects. One of them is his website, Noal Cohen's Jazz History Website, which features thorough, painstakingly researched discographies of jazz greats such as Gigi Gryce, Johnny Hartman, Elmo Hope, Lucky Thompson, Frank Strozier, Teddy Charles, and Herb Geller, among others. The site is also a treasure trove of LP covers from his extensive jazz record collection and information about the 1950s Rochester, NY, jazz scene, which was extremely active. His other project is a book he has co-authored with his friend Michael FitzgeraldRat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce, the definitive Gryce biography, which has already reached its second edition.

I recently had the chance to chat with Noal about his life, his invaluable work as a jazz historian and discographer, and his personal views on jazz and its history, when he guested on the sixth episode of the Jazz Flashes PodcastDuring our lengthy conversation, which ended up lasting for about two hours, Noal and I discussed his excellent Gigi Gryce biography (which he had already written about a few months ago in The Vintage Bandstand, here), his laborious discographical research on some lesser-known jazz greats from the '50s and '60s, his own work as a jazz drummer, and the many reasons why the Eisenhower years can be considered a golden era of high-quality jazz, among several other topics. I'd like to thank Noal for guesting on the podcast and for his time; our conversation was quite a thrill for me, and if you are interested in listening to it, you may access it in its entirety here:

Friday, May 12, 2017

New (Re)Issues: Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mercer & Bobby Darin, Jan Lundgren

This year marks the centennial of Ella Fitzgerald's birthday, so it's the perfect time to celebrate her vast musical legacy and an amazing career that spanned several decades. While in this celebratory mood, Verve just released a 4-CD set entitled 100 Songs for a Centennial, which offers a good cross-section of recordings from two important periods of her career—her associations with Decca and Verve. The sides Fitzgerald cut for Decca in the 1940s and '50s, after the years she spent with Chick Webb in the '30s, cemented her reputation as a top-notch jazz and pop singer and gave her the chance to record with other great names like Louis Jordan or the Ink Spots. It was also while at Decca that she made her beautiful intimate recordings with pianist Ellis Larkins that can be found on the Pure Ella CD. Whereas at Decca she concentrated on singles, after signing with Norman Granz's Verve Records in the mid-'50s, Fitzgerald switched her primary interest to albums, and it was then that she began her acclaimed series of songbooks devoted to some of the greatest American composers, such as Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, and co. During this very successful period, she also had plenty of time to record thematic albums with top arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Frank DeVol, as well as cutting some classic live LPs. While 100 Songs for a Centennial doesn't span her whole career, it's still interesting because it features some of Fitzgerald's most enduring recordings, all collected in one place.

In 1960, a seemingly unlikely musical collaboration took place as rocker-turned-swinger Bobby Darin and ace singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer entered the Atlantic studios to make an album together, with arranger Billy May at the helm. The result, released as Two of a Kind, was indeed unique and showcased the mutual understanding between both artists, who were clearly having lots of fun going through some Mercer classics and a few lesser-known songs that hark back to the 1920s. I already wrote about this LP several years ago, here, but now the Omnivore label has reissued the original album along with a few unreleased outtakes that provide a glimpse into these incredibly charming, fun sessions, full of swing and camaraderie. The sound is fantastic, and this reissue is recommendable even for those who may already have the album on CD without the bonus tracks.

The Stockholm-based label Fog Arts continues with the digital reissue of albums by the pianist Jan Lundgren (and others) that have been out of print for a while. On May 5 they made available for download and for streaming on all major services a recording that Lundgren and his trio (Mattias Svensson on bass and Morten Lund on drums) cut for Sittel back in 2003. Originally released both as Svenska Landskap and Landscapes, it's yet another masterful melding of jazz and Scandinavian folk music in the mold of the highly successful Swedish Standards. The concept here is clear—a collection of mostly traditional tunes culled from the different geographic areas of Sweden and transformed by the trio's personal jazzy sensibility and Lundgren's flair for melodies that are sometimes swift and lilting and sometimes pensive and introspective. The arrangements are at once respectful with tradition, imaginative, and sensitive, and besides a couple of Lundgren originals ("Småland" and "Blekinge") that blend in perfectly with the overall mood of the album, there's also one selection by the iconic 18th-century Swedish poet and composer Carl Michael Bellman and another by the highly respected Scandinavian artist Evert Taube. Anyone looking for truly beautiful jazz that incorporates both tradition and modernity need look no further. More information about Svenska Landskap here, and of course, further interesting Fog Arts digital reissues are slated to appear in the near future, including more recordings by Lundgren, as well as a collaboration between Czech pianist Emil Viklicky and New York trumpeter Marcus Printup.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Thad Jones on Blue Note, 1956

One of the greatest jazzmen to emerge from the Detroit area, Thad Jones was born in Pontiac, MI, in 1923 and in time would become known as a trumpeter, arranger, and composer. He came, of course, from a musical family (his brothers, Hank and Elvin Jones, made names for themselves as pianist and drummer respectively) and began his professional career playing with Sonny Stitt and Billy Mitchell. It was, however, as a sideman with Count Basie in the 1950s that Jones began to rise to prominence. Even though he was forced to share solo duties with the equally accomplished Joe Newman, Jones got a chance to compose and arrange while with the Count, and this experience would later prove extremely valuable. In the early '60s, Jones started to concentrate on arranging, and by 1965 he had teamed up with drummer Mel Lewis to organize the popular and influential Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, an outfit that boasted both established musicians and some outstanding young talent among its ranks. By the late 1970s, though, Jones had quit the orchestra and moved to Denmark, where he kept working steadily until his passing in 1986 at age 63.

Jones's first session as a leader for Blue Note took place at the New Jersey-based Rudy Van Gelder studio on March 13, 1956, and it was issued as Detroit-New York Junction, a tip of the hat to Jones's own roots. Overall, it's a very satisfying affair and already points to even greater things to come. It also gave Jones a chance to reunite with tenorist Billy Mitchell in a sextet that also features Kenny Burrell on guitar, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. As the leader, Jones commands a great deal of attention with his spontaneous-sounding hard bop playing, yet there's also room for interesting solos by Burrell and Flanagan, and Pettiford's work on bass is never less than wonderful. The album also showcases Jones's talent as a composer, with three originals ("Tariff," "Zec," and the lengthy "Scratch") that seem tailor-made for his fresh, boppish approach, as well as for the rest of participants to show off their wares. The two standards selected are by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and while the opening track, "Blue Room," sets the pace perfectly for the whole album, it's the ballad "Little Girl Blue" that stands out, a highly lyrical reading with just trumpet, guitar, and bass. The word that critic Leonard Feather repeats the most in his original liner notes for the LP is "elegance," which is indeed appropriate when applied to this date and to the six musicians that make up this memorable Detroit-New York junction.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Jazz Flashes Podcast: A Conversation with New York Saxophonist Chris Byars

Multi-instrumentalist Chris Byars has been very active in the New York jazz scene for several decades now. Though he is better known as a saxophonist, Byars also plays the flute and the clarinet, and he has done extensive work as a composer, arranger, and bandleader, as shown by a recent gig directing the WDR Big Band in Germany for a lovely concert celebrating the centennial of Thelonious Monk. Byars possesses a deep knowledge of the history of jazz and has devoted albums to revising and furthering the legacy of great jazzmen from the past who are somewhat neglected these days, like Gigi Gryce, Lucky Thompson, and Duke Jordan, to name but three. He has also been very active as a teacher and a world traveler, and as a Jazz Ambassador for the U.S. State Department, has brought live jazz music and musical education to over sixty countries across the globe. Byars took some time off his busy schedule to guest on a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast, which you may access in its entirety here:

During our two-hour conversation we had time to cover a lot of ground, from reminiscing about Byars's first encounter with jazz to sharing memories about his jazz-related treks around the world to musing about the form and meaning of New York jazz. But we also had time to discuss three recent CD releases by Byars, all of them on the Danish SteepleChase label. The latest one, The Music of Frank Strozier (2017), is devoted to compositions by the underrated Memphis saxophonist arranged by Byars. Two Fives (2015) clearly shows the two sides of Byars's artistry: five tracks from jazz greats like Tadd Dameron and Duke Jordan, paired with five Byars originals that acknowledge the past of jazz while looking toward the future. Finally, With Due Respect (2016) is a date by legendary pianist Freddie Redd, now octogenarian, with arrangements provided by Byars. All three albums feature outstanding musicians such as Pasquale Grasso, Ari Roland, Stefano Doglioni, John Mosca, and Chris's father James Byars. It was an absolute pleasure to have the chance to converse with Chris Byars, and I hope the readers enjoy listening to our chat as much as I enjoyed being a part of it!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East, 1961

One of the smoothest and most successful jazz and pop vocalists of the 1940s and '50s, Billy Eckstine was also one of the most forward-thinking, as we can infer from the lineup of his famous orchestra of the mid-'40s, which included soon-to-be famous jazzmen such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Art Blakey, among many others. Not only was Mr. B a fantastic vocalist, but he was also an intelligent man who made his mark socially and politically. As critic Will Friedwald has noted in his Biographical Guide, "before Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole dared sing anything other than the blues or novelties, Billy Eckstine was among the first to show the world that the black man could be intellectual, passionate, sensitive, literate, articulate, proud—and profound." Indeed, Eckstine was all this, but most of all, he was profound: his voice was rich and deep, and he imbued everything he sang with a depth that very few singers in jazz, pop, or any other style could even dream of achieving. He felt at ease singing different types of music, but he excelled at the art of the ballad, particularly that of the intimate, emotionally deep variety, like his big 1947 hit, "Everything I Have Is Yours." No wonder that his female fans—black and white alike, in a time of open segregation, no less—went wild over him. He was simply just that deep, that emotional, that attractive.

Producer and arranger Quincy Jones.

By October 1961, when he was recorded live at Basin Street East in New York City, Eckstine's hit-making days were pretty much over, yet he was still at his peak vocally. For this engagement at the legendary club, Mr. B assembled a fantastic orchestra including great musicians such as trumpeter Joe Newman, trombonists Curtis Fuller and Melba Liston, and altoist Phil Woods. With Quincy Jones at the helm and taking care of the arrangements, the results couldn't be anything but outstanding. The album kicks off with a spirited R&B-inflected reading of "All Right, Okay, You Win" that makes it instantly clear that Eckstine still has it and that the listener is in for a real treat. After jokingly describing himself as "the Fabian of the forties," Eckstine goes into a lovely medley of three ballads ("I'm Falling for You," "Fool That I Am," and the classic "Everything I Have Is Yours") that show his mastery of the romantic ballad to great effect. Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night" is infused with a tasteful Latin beat that suits Eckstine's style perfectly. Next comes one of the highlights of the album—a medley of four Duke Ellington standards that work very well together and that Mr. B performs effortlessly, apparently in front of Ellington himself, who was in the audience on that particular night. Eckstine then moves into more contemporary territory, and his interpretation of Nat Adderley's "Work Song" is surprising for its gospel undertones. The album closes with a fun, swinging rendition of the Con Conrad novelty "Ma (She's Making Eyes at Me)" that once again indicates Eckstine's versatility. Released on Mercury as Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East, this is one of Eckstine's best live records, and my only complaint about it is that it's entirely too short.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Charlie Parker Jams on Verve, 1952

While certain critics consider that producer Norman Granz was responsible for encouraging Charlie Parker to veer away from bebop somewhat and venture into more commercial territory, there's no doubt that Granz also helped widen Bird's horizons. It would be enough to mention the classic album Charlie Parker with Strings, in which Parker is paired with a string section to create a masterpiece that has stood the test of time and that would later be imitated by countless jazz soloists. But the producer influenced the career of the saxophonist in other ways, as well. Granz was very involved in the production and promotion of live jazz gatherings known as Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), all-star groups of jazz musicians who interacted in a jam-session format and who toured both the U.S. and overseas. Many of these live concerts have been preserved on tape thanks to Granz's foresight, and the producer also organized similar studio sessions with an eye to releasing them commercially. One of these, cut in July 1952, involved Parker, who was joined by a stellar cast that included Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges on alto sax, Ben Webster and Flip Phillips on tenor, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Oscar Peterson on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and J.C. Heard on drums.

Jazz producer Norman Granz

It's well known that all-star dates can be hit or miss, but from the very first bars it seems clear that this one is most definitely a winner. The length of the four cuts recorded (all of them over 13 minutes each) affords plenty of room for each soloist to show off his undeniable talents, and nobody gets in the way of anyone else. The result is a classic jam session that keeps surprising new listeners several decades after its original release. The meeting of these jazz greats is bookended by two bluesy compositions, "Jam Blues" and "Funky Blues," which work perfectly as vehicles for each participant to explore familiar musical territory in a succession of imaginative solos that allow us to experience different approaches to the blues idiom. Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," introduced by an energetic piano solo by Peterson, is taken at a breakneck tempo and serves as an excuse for some inspired blowing by everyone. Finally, the cut simply entitled "Ballad Medley" presents the group at its mellowest and most intimate, as they tastefully run through a selection of slow standards by Jerome Kern, Matt Dennis, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and others. Throughout the whole session there's that kind of electricity created by a group of excellent musicians who feel comfortable playing together and who constantly spur each other on to achieve new heights with every new solo. The album has been issued on CD as Charlie Parker Jam Session, and its contents are also available as part of the five-disc set The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions, which also presents other similar jams produced by Granz in the same time period. While there are other Bird recordings that one should listen to first, in my opinion this remains one of the most satisfying dates of his remarkable career.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

June Christy & Stan Kenton on Capitol, 1955

Illinois-born singer June Christy was arguably one of the most unique female vocalists to come out of the big band era and first rose to prominence in the mid-1940s as the replacement for Anita O'Day in the popular band led by Stan Kenton at a time when arranger Pete Rugolo (later a close associate of Christy's at Capitol) was writing most of the charts for the orchestra. During her rather brief tenure with the Kenton organization, Christy had an important part in the creation of such hits as "Tampico" and "How High the Moon" and quickly became known for her cool, relaxed approach to the vocal art. Christy went on to have a successful solo career starting in the early '50s, recording great concept albums such as Something Cool and The Misty Miss Christy, among many others that have become pop classics of the era. About ten years after she first joined his band, Christy reunited with former boss Kenton for an LP that stands as one of the most challenging in the careers of both participants. The project, simply entitled Duet and recorded for Capitol over the course of four sessions in May 1955, presents Miss Christy's divinely husky voice, with its astounding ability to convincingly narrate stories in song, sharing the spotlight with Kenton's forceful piano accompaniment, which is afforded plenty of space to shine in its own right throughout the album.

June Christy on stage at the Hollywood Palladium with the Stan Kenton band.

The result of this collaboration is a classic, though often neglected, record that combines standards (Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," George and Ira Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On," Matt Dennis's "Angel Eyes") with under-recorded gems (Joe Greene's "Come to the Party," Bobby Troup's "Just the Way I Am") that really sound special in the hands—and pipes—of the duo of Kenton and Christy. Benny Carter's "Lonely Woman," with its powerfully dramatic undertones, and "Baby, Baby All the Time," a song that came to Miss Christy's attention via her much-admired Nat King Cole, are among the many high spots of the album, the latter even prompting the singer to do a little scatting. In his Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, critic Will Friedwald notes that the album could well have been inspired by similar collaborations between Ella Fitzgerald and Ellis Larkins, and suggests that "the starkness of the accompaniment and the exposed, vulnerable nature of Christy's singing effectively foreshadow Tony Bennett and Bill Evans twenty years later." Though the 1993 Capitol CD reissue has been out of print for a while, this highly recommendable album has been included recently in a four-CD collection of Christy LPs from the '50s released by the European label Real Gone. The way to go, however, is still the Capitol reissue, since it boasts not only fine liner notes by Mr. Friedwald himself, but also two tracks ("Prelude to a Kiss" and the lovely "Thanks for You") that were left out of the original LP release.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Paul Desmond with Strings, 1961

There are many adjectives one can use to describe Desmond Blue, altoist Paul Desmond's 1961 date with strings subtly arranged by Bob Prince. The album is moody, soft, and restrained. Desmond's playing is imaginative and soothing, and Prince's string arrangements serve as a sort of cushion, never getting in the way of the soloist. But, most of all, the adjective that comes most readily to mind when listening to Desmond Blue is beautiful, and sometimes one is simply in the mood to listen to jazz that is beautiful. If that's the case, then one can't go wrong with this album. Best remembered for his association with pianist Dave Brubeck, of whose very successful quartet he was an integral part in the 1950s and '60s, Desmond cut several excellent albums under his own name throughout his collaboration with Brubeck. Six of these were recorded for RCA Victor in the sixties, and fortunately, they were reissued in 2012 as a very attractive and affordable box set that reproduces the format of the original LPs, though adding some bonus tracks. And the first of these albums chronologically is Desmond Blue.

Jim Hall and Paul Desmond
Recorded in New York City over the course of several sessions in September and October 1961, Desmond Blue was released in 1962 and, as its cover proudly states, it presents "a great saxophonist in a new setting." This new setting is, of course, Desmond accompanied by a string orchestra and performing a selection of well-known standards and two originals, "Desmond Blue" and "Late Lament," both of them included on the first side of the record. As his discography clearly shows, Desmond was always very fond of standards, and the ones he chose on this occasion seem tailor-made for his delicate, often understated style. He approaches classic ballads such as "My Funny Valentine," "Then I'll Be Tired of You," and "I Should Care" with great lyricism. Yet, as we can hear on "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Like Someone in Love," he also sounds comfortable varying the tempo and lending some diversity to the album. Jim Hall guests on guitar on four of the tracks, blending in with the orchestra as perfectly as Desmond himself and adding an extra touch of class to the proceedings. The result is a magnificent album of the kind that is agreeable to the ears and soothing to the spirit, an album that could most appropriately be described as beautiful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bobby Darin Swings Some Love Songs, 1961

In celebration of Valentine's Day, here's a review of one of my favorite albums by Bobby Darin—Love Swings, a concept album with the ups and downs of love as its central theme, cut for Atco in 1961. A good listen for this time of year!

A singer clearly influenced by Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin could rival Ol' Blue Eyes at hard-swinging numbers, but when it came to emotional depth, that was a totally different matter. Critics have long pointed out that one of the main differences between Sinatra and Darin is that the younger singer wasn't as successful at creating a lingering mood through song and maintaining it during the course of a whole album. That is perhaps why Darin didn't usually record concept albums, which was home territory for The Voice. Yet Love Swings, an LP Darin cut for Atlantic in 1961, is the one worthwhile exception--a collection of twelve standards outlining the different stages of a love relationship, from the effervescence of its early stages to the sadness, melancholy, and acceptance of its eventual failure.

Anyone expecting an album of hard-swinging tracks is misled by the title. While many of the songs are uptempo numbers, particularly the ones depicting the early stages of love, there are also beautifully sung ballads such as Isham Jones's "There Is No Greater Love" and Jerome Kern and Leo Robin's often-overlooked "In Love in Vain." In general the uptempo numbers ("Long Ago and Far Away," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "How About You," "The More I See You," "It Had to Be You") appear in the first part of the album, coinciding with the excitement brought about by love, while the more pensive tunes ("Something to Remember You By," "Skylark," "Spring Is Here") surface on side B, as the relationship slowly begins to take a downturn. But by this time Darin had learned Sinatra's lesson from the classic Songs for Swinging Lovers that there is no reason why a sad song shouldn't swing, and so we find here a nice uptempo reading of the Russ Columbo-associated "Just Friends," which Chet Baker had also recorded in a fast-paced version for Pacific a few years earlier. The album closes appropriately with a mid-tempo rendition of the self-mocking, hopeful "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan."

Arranger Torrie Zito

The twelve charts are arranged by Torrie Zito, and while he doesn't come anywhere near Nelson Riddle, Billy May, or Gordon Jenkins, who wrote such fine albums for the Capitol Sinatra, he does stay out of Darin's way on the swinging tracks and shows a certain knack for arranging the ballads. Darin sounds very comfortable and occasionally takes liberties with the lyrics, particularly on "How About You," where he finds a way to fit "a TV set," "fish and chips," and "rock'n'roll" into the lyrics and proclaims that Mrs. Darin's looks "kinda" give him a thrill. Exactly why this collection failed to capture the public's imagination (and spending money) when it was first released remains a mystery to me. I only wish Darin had recorded a few more discs like this one...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jazz Flashes News: R.I.P. Singer and Pianist Buddy Greco (1926-2017)

This new year of 2017 has begun on several sour notes, with the departures of Nat Hentoff and Buddy Bregman a few days ago, to which we must add now that of vocalist and pianist Buddy Greco, one of the last of the vanishing breed of saloon singers. He passed away on January 10 at 90 years old. Unfortunately, whenever Greco is cited these days, it's mostly because of his rocky personal life: his many failed marriages, his eccentricities, his dealings with the Rat Pack, and his quick temper. But if we concentrate on his musical career, we find that Greco was a solid jazz pianist and a sophisticated singer who has left behind a very valuable body of work. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Greco was extremely precocious, and his interest in music was encouraged by his father, who owned a record store. In the early 1940s Greco spent four years singing, playing piano, and writing arrangements for Benny Goodman. He left the orchestra and struck out on his own in 1946, around the time when solo singers had started eclipsing the big bands, and he was quite successful at it, even scoring a few hits, one of the most memorable of which was his fun uptempo version of "The Lady Is a Tramp." The success of his very entertaining live concerts and classy recordings quickly led to television and film appearances, as well as to opportunities to sing and pal around with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., in Las Vegas. However, he never attained the heights of popularity of his more famous confreres.

Despite the many ups and downs he went through in his career, Greco always concentrated on doing what he did best: singing and playing piano. In an interview with the New York Times in the 1960s, he explained: "I'd always wanted to be a jazz pianist. But it's easier to make a living as a singer. . . . By singing I can appeal to the masses." And so he did, almost right up until his very last days, appearing all over the world as a featured attraction and also as part of tribute shows to Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. His recorded oeuvre is prodigiously vast, rich, and varied, ranging stylistically from jazz to pop to country, even to Italian songs, and his discography is full of excellent albums such as Live at Mr. Kelly's, My Buddy, and On Stage. But, in my opinion, his best project is arguably Songs for Swinging Losers, a 1960 concept album modeled on Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers that captures Greco at his peak as a saloon singer. The arrangements by Chuck Sagle are always tasteful, and Greco indulges his penchant for drama, more restrained than usual on this occasion, performing a repertoire of classic tunes that includes "Something I Dreamed Last Night," "I'm Lost," "These Foolish Things," "That Old Feeling," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," as well as an opener written specifically for the album by Sagle and entitled "A Swinging Loser." This recording is quintessential Greco, and the perfect introduction to the sound of a singer like no other whose work is well worth delving into. R.I.P. Buddy Greco.