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.