Monday, June 4, 2018

Guy Jones Interviews Jim Tomlinson in Stockholm, Part I

Jim Tomlinson and Stacey Kent
I've recently heard that my good friend Guy Jones, founder of the Stockholm-based jazz reissue label Fog Arts and occasional guest on the Jazz Flashes Podcast, has had the chance to interview the great British saxophonist and flutist Jim Tomlinson. The interview took place back in May 2018 in the lobby of the Scandic Grand hotel in the Swedish capital, which Tomlinson visited with his wife, American singer Stacey Kent, to play a few dates and give a talk on the collaboration between the two of them and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.

Fog Arts founder and manager Guy Jones

Tomlinson is a versatile and engaging player who began his performing and recording career in the 1980s and who is well known via his albums as a leader, as well as his frequent collaborations with Kent on her critically acclaimed records. This 88-minute conversation offers a great deal of insight into the British reedman's art, covering all sorts of topics related to Tomlinson's life and illustrious musical career. The first part of the interview has been made available as a podcast on SoundCloud and on the Fog Arts YouTube channel, and readers of Jazz Flashes may access it at the end of this post. A second part of the conversation is forthcoming, and we're eagerly awaiting it.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jazz Flashes Podcast: Chris Byars on His New CD, New York City Jazz

The sound of Chris Byars's band is forcibly changing due to the fact that his guitarist, Pasquale Grasso, hitherto one of the anchors of Byars's approach to jazz, has signed an exclusive recording contract of his own and is thus leaving the group. The New York-based saxophonist adheres to the motto that one shouldn't try to replace what's irreplaceable, and so he will be modifying the sound of his combo following the guitarist's departure. That's one of the many reasons why Byars's latest CD release, New York City Jazz (SteepleChase, 2018) is a must—because it captures the sound of this particular sextet for what may well be the last time.

Cut in December 2016, the album finds Byars playing alto sax and flute in the comfortable company of Grasso on guitar, John Mosca on trombone, Stefano Doglioni on bass clarinet, Ari Roland on bass, and Stefan Schatz on drums. The program is bookended by two rather obscure compositions by Gigi Gryce ("Transfiguration" and "B.G.'s Holiday") and includes a beautiful ballad by Freddie Redd ("Dawn in the City"), two names that have influenced Byars greatly. "The General's Song" is a curiosity that the saxophonist learned from Saudi Arabian musician Tarek Abdel-Hakim during the course of one of his many trips overseas as a jazz ambassador for the U.S. State Department. The rest of the tracks are all Byars originals, and they are prime examples of his talent as a composer, as well as of the variety and depth of his influences: from the slow, intimate "Bridge of Locks," a melody that borders on the tone poem, to the jumpy "Quick Turnaround" and "Hot Dog." "Chess" is another bouncy number that references Byars's son's mastery of that ages-old game, and the Midde Eastern-sounding "No Message," one of the highlights of the set, is actually inspired on ancient traditional tune from Bahrain. On the whole, this new album by Byars is a testament to the rich music of this world-traveling saxophonist, as well as to the consummate musicianship of his magnificent band, with plenty of solos from everyone involved and a great deal of excellent bowed bass from Roland. A definite winner that serious jazz fans should seek out.

We recently caught Byars at his NYC apartment right before a recording session, and we had the chance to chat with him for about an hour for a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast. Throughout the conversation we addressed the album, the impending changes in his band, and the impact that this will have on the sound of the tracks for a forthcoming new CD that we are impatiently awaiting. Hoping that the episode will be of interest to Jazz Flashes readers, it's available in its entirety here below.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Jazz Flashes Podcast: Interview with John Radanovich on Cuban Singer Benny More

In his native Cuba, vocalist Benny More (whose first name was sometimes spelled as "Beny" on record covers and whose nickname was "El Barbaro del Ritmo," i.e. "The Wildman of Rhythm") has transcended his status as a popular singer to become an iconic figure, someone who is still spoken of with reverence many decades after his untimely death in 1963. And there's good reason for that, judging by the handful of phenomenal recordings he made in the 1950s and by the few videos of live performances that have survived, many of which may be enjoyed on YouTube. Though he came from a humble background and had no formal musical training, he had a fantastic ear for music and composed unforgettable melodies such as "Que Bueno Baila Usted" or "Santa Isabel de las Lajas," among many others that have become standards of Cuban music. More was comfortable in very different settings: he drew heavily on his African roots for his rhythm tunes, got a great deal of inspiration from American big bands, and was a master of the more romantic bolero. Moreover, on stage he was quite the showman, a fiery performer who always knew how to get the best out of his musicians and who would become one of Havana's most exciting performers at a very exciting time in Cuban music--the late 1940s and the 1950s. When More sings, the listener simply has to stop and listen intently, almost mesmerized by his voice and irresistible charisma.

John Radanovich
Florida-based music critic John Radanovich, who over the decades has written for prestigious publications such as Off-Beat and Downbeat, became enthralled by More's music and personality to such an extent that he spent 15 years researching his life, including visits to Cuba at a time when it wasn't as easy for Americans to have access to the island as it may be today. The result is the only English-language biography of More, Wildman of Rhythm: The Life and Music of Benny More (University Press of Florida, 2009), a carefully researched and highly enjoyable book that is the perfect introduction to More the artist, the person, and the icon. A few weeks ago, Mr. Radanovich kindly agreed to guest on a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast, and we had the chance to discuss in depth both his book and his love for More's music. The whole conversation, which I found extremely interesting, is now available to the readers of Jazz Flashes on the video below.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Louis Armstrong & Oscar Peterson, 1957

Though his career began back in the twenties, Louis Armstrong cut some of his best albums in the 1950s—Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, his classic collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald for Verve, and Louis Under the Stars are just a few examples. Perhaps because of the sheer quantity and quality of his recordings from this era, his 1957 meeting with pianist Oscar Peterson is often forgotten or overlooked by critics, and very unjustly so. Predictably titled Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, the album was recorded in Hollywood over the course of two separate sessions in July and October 1957 and finds Satchmo at his most laid-back and relaxed, going through a number of well-chosen standards with the inestimable help of Peterson's quartet. Armstrong's vocalizing is showcased to a greater extent than his trumpet playing (though he takes some exciting solos, such as on "Let's Fall in Love" and "Moon Song") which may be another reason that has affected the visibility of the record and its lukewarm critical reception.

Brown, Peterson, and Ellis
But no matter, because the mood achieved by Armstrong, Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Louis Bellson is delightful. The album opener, "That Old Feeling," sets the pace as the dates are mostly dominated by medium tempos, which works really well with tunes such as "I Was Doing All Right," "Just One of Those Things," and "Sweet Lorraine." Armstrong typically sings to the accompaniment of the Peterson trio plus Bellson, occasionally throwing in trumpet solos that aren't as brief as some critics have noted. The bluesy 5-minute reading of "Blues in the Night" is arguably one of the highlights of the sessions, which also yielded some excellent slow numbers, such as "How Long Has This Been Going On?" and "What's New?" On "There's No You," Armstrong's voice is backed only by Ellis's lovely guitar, and the track makes us wish Satchmo had recorded a whole album with Ellis, something that, alas, never happened. The slow, wistful approach to "You Go to My Head" is yet another memorable performance that has Armstrong playing the tune once through and then going into the vocals. The 1997 CD reissue fortunately offers four extra tracks ("I Get a Kick Out of You," "Makin' Whoopee," "Willow Weep for Me," and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)") that never made it to the original vinyl release but that are equally engaging. Once again, producer Norman Granz was right in pairing Louis and Oscar, and over 60 years later, the outcome of their collaboration is in need of rediscovery and reevaluation.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Jazz Flashes Podcast: Interview with Jazz Pianist Marc Devine

Marc Devine performing at Smalls
Not long ago I published a blog post in which I reviewed Inspiration, the debut album as a leader by New York-based pianist Marc Devine, a trio outing alongside bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka. Shortly after the review was published, Devine agreed to guest on a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast and joined me from NYC to discuss the CD, his life and career, and his views on jazz and the current New York jazz scene, among many other topics. The entire 85-minute conversation is now available here below for any readers who may be interested in listening to it. For more information about the Marc Devine Trio and their excellent, swing-drenched debut album, please visit Devine's homepage.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Jazz Flashes Videocast: Will Friedwald's Best Books on Jazz and Classic Pop

Anyone who has read my posts here in Jazz Flashes and in my other blog, The Vintage Bandstand, especially those that deal with vocal jazz, classic pop, and the crooners, is aware of my admiration for the work of New York-based critic Will Friedwald. To me, Mr. Friedwald is an authority on the subjects of classic pop and vocal jazz, and all his books are an absolute pleasure to read because of the depth of his knowledge, the wide variety and scope of information they include, and the incomparable wit of his writing style.

I've been following Mr. Friedwald's work since the 1990s, when I first ran across a copy of his eye-opening study, Jazz Singing, and I've read nearly all his works, from his exploration of twelve of the greatest songs from the Songbook (Stardust Melodies) to the biography of Tony Bennett that he wrote in tandem with the singer (The Good Life) to his volumes on the music of Warner Bros. cartoons to his mammoth (and indispensable) Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers. Mr. Friedwald is also the author of Sinatra! The Song Is You, which, in my opinion, is by far the best book ever written about the music and the recorded legacy of Frank Sinatra. His latest work, The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums, is yet another necessary addition to the shelves of any serious vocal jazz aficionado. It's a collection of essays on some of the most influential vocal jazz and classic pop albums that will have readers dusting the records off and listening to them under a new, different light. Mr. Friedwald is a very persuasive writer, never afraid to offer his personal opinion on a given LP, artist, or arrangement, and even though we may not always agree with his view on a particular point, more often than not, we'll find ourselves rethinking our own approach to each specific album after reading what he has to say about it.

As a personal tribute to a writer from whom I've learned a great deal and who has been a primary influence when it came to discovering or rediscovering this or that artist or album, I've recently recorded a videocast whose aim is to review briefly my five favorite books by Mr. Friedwald. It's really not my intention to rank them, so I simply talk about them in chronological order of publication, beginning with Jazz Singing and ending with The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums. For anyone willing to understand vocal jazz and classic pop or to gain a deeper knowledge of both subjects, Mr. Friedwald's work is undoubtedly the place to start. I'd like to express my sincerest gratitude to Mr. Friedwald for the marvelous books that he's been producing for many years now, and I hope the video will serve as a fitting introduction to his work for many readers of Jazz Flashes.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

New Releases: Inspiration, by the Marc Devine Trio

After a brief hiatus, Jazz Flashes returns with a review of an excellent trio album released just a few months ago.

His first CD as a leader finds pianist Marc Devine in a trio setting and in a company in which he feels extremely comfortable and relaxed: bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, whose pedigree is impeccable if we bear in mind that they've worked with illustrious names such as Junior Mance and Lou Donaldson respectively. The album, recorded in April 2017 and simply entitled Inspiration (ITI Records), amounts to an outstanding calling card that underscores Devine's straight-ahead approach, with more than a hint of bebop and hard bop but always full of swing and extremely listenable. Devine moved to NYC in 2009 after establishing a solid reputation as a top-notch jazz pianist in Austin, TX, and since settling in the Big Apple, he has been contributing to several recordings and making personal appearances at renowned clubs such as Smalls, forming productive associations with different musicians on the New York scene and now getting to cut some sides fronting his own trio.

And the music on Devine's first album as a leader is, indeed, inspired and shows the breadth of his influences. The collection opens with the trio's swinging take on Hank Mobley's perennial "Soul Station," whose bluesy riffs become the perfect vehicle for some soulful playing from the pianist. No less soulful, though with perhaps more of an accent on swing and bop, is Devine's only original composition here, "Inspiration," which does seem inspired by the hard bop sounds of Barry Harris and includes brief solos by Tanaka and Tainaka. The Great American Songbook also has its place on the album via a lightly swinging rendition of the Johnny Mercer standard, "Dream," followed by "Vignette," a lesser-known gem by Hank Jones that Devine unearths for the occasion—and rightly so. Bud Powell is yet another of Devine's inspirations, as we can hear on his lively version of Powell's "Hallucinations," which also features a marvelous bowed solo by Tanaka.

The Marc Devine Trio (Photo: Peter Shepherd)
Devine has a knack for finding the swing that lies under the melody in the unlikeliest places, as on Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," which, in Devine's hands doesn't sound anything like a Shirelles tune but swings nonchalantly in a manner that is reminiscent of Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner. Similarly, Elvis Presley's ballad, "Love Me Tender," is another seemingly odd choice that somehow works perfectly when taken at an ultra-slow pace that renders it almost minimalist. Osie Johnson's "Osmosis" is the exact opposite: as vertiginous as it gets on the album, this is an extremely appropriate closer that leaves the listener hungry for more. In short, Marc Devine's debut album at the helm of his trio lives up to its title, and with its right doses of swing and bop, the excellent rapport between the musicians, and the variety of the tune selections, it's one of the best and most engaging trio albums I've heard in a very long time.

Further Information

For more information about the Marc Devine Trio, including upcoming live gigs, please visit Devine's website here.