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!