Friday, October 21, 2016

New Reissues: Jan Lundgren Trio Plays the Music of Victor Young

Last month, the newly formed Fog Arts label began what is an ongoing series of digital reissues of Jan Lundgren albums that have been long out of print due to the demise of the record label for which they were originally cut. The first two are songbook packages that concentrate on the work of Victor Young and Jule Styne, two great composers who aren't usually the subject of such full-length projects by jazz musicians. A third album of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn tunes is slated for release next month, and it's our intention to devote one Jazz Flash to each of these and other forthcoming Lundgren reissues, beginning with The Jan Lundgren Trio Plays the Music of Victor Young. By the time the Lundgren-led trio (with Mattias Svensson on bass and Rasmus Kihlberg on drums) entered the studio in Copenhagen in 2000 and 2001 to record this tribute to Young, one of the most celebrated film composers of all time, the Swedish pianist was well established, with a series of fine albums (Swedish Standards, Cooking! At the Jazz Bakery, Something to Live For) and collaborations with legendary jazzmen such as Herb Geller, Bill Perkins, Conte Candoli, and Arne Domnérus, to cite just a few. Lundgren had traveled to the U.S. to perform and had recorded twice in NYC. After cutting a whole CD of Ellington originals for the now-defunct Sittel label, he began to concentrate on the work of Great American Songbook songwriters who don't usually receive as much attention as the Gershwins, Porters, Mercers, etc., and thus this album was born. The idea was, it seems, to focus on both Young's well-known songs and some more obscure items from his prolific output. As it happened, it didn't prove to be an easy task, as Lundgren himself has noted: "I couldn't unearth any modern sheet music songbooks for either composer [he refers to Styne as well], and Young was particularly neglected. I found that curious—and a little bit shocking . . . Yet I also found it appealing, because I wanted to play songs by writers who hadn't been done to death by everyone else."

Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren
Lundgren was fortunate to be able to enlist the help of three excellent American artists—singers Stacey Kent and Deborah Brown, who handle the vocals on several of the tracks, and, particularly, the outstanding tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. They were all apparently touring European cities at the time and joined Lundgren's trio in Denmark on some of these sessions, to which they contributed in a major way. New Jersey-born Kent bookends the album with pensive readings of the classic ballads "Ghost of a Chance" and "My Foolish Heart," and she's also featured on a bouncy "Street of Dreams." Brown, who's from Kansas City, approaches the beautiful "A Hundred Years from Today" in a delicate manner, very much in tune with Lundgren's piano on that track, and then hastens the tempo on "Beautiful Love" and a scat-filled "Stella by Starlight." Griffin, one of the greatest tenorists in jazz history, shows off his mastery on two very different selections: the uptempo "A Weaver of Dreams," possibly inspired by the John Coltrane version, and the heartfelt ballad "When I Fall in Love," which taps into Griffin's most intimate persona. The latter is one of the highlights from the album, prompting these telling words from Lundgren: "When we'd finished the take, I noticed a tear in the corner of [Griffin's] eye. 'I was thinking of Ben,' Johnny quietly told me, referring of course to the great Ben Webster. It was a very emotional moment." And it is, indeed, a rendition that would have made the Brute proud!

Johnny Griffin
The trio is featured on the other five songs, which again range from Young classics to lesser-known compositions. Lundgren's piano shines on the uptempo "Sweet Sue (Just You)," one of Young's most enduring offerings, and "Love Letters" is given a Latin treatment that proves to be a good vehicle for Svensson's bass. "Song of Delilah" may sound like an odd choice at first, but its hip R&B arrangement actually turns it into one of the most memorable moments on the album. Very few probably remember the Ray Milland movie for which Young wrote "Golden Earrings," but the tune is lovely, and Lundgren treats it gently and with quite a bit of easy-going swing. Finally, "Alone at Last" is another of those obscurities that Lundgren is so adept at digging up, a film ballad that lends itself perfectly to the trio's relaxed approach. Overall, this is undoubtedly one of the best entries in Lundgren's ever-growing discography, and true jazz fans should be thankful to Fog Arts for making its content available again as digital downloads and on all major streaming platforms. We look forward to seeing the rest of these long-deleted albums back in circulation after so many years.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Drummer Man: Gene Krupa on Verve, 1956

More than merely a jazz drummer, Chicago-born Gene Krupa was a drumming showman, one of the first swing musicians to bring attention to his instrument as a vehicle for exciting, bombastic solos. Krupa's big band, which featured a host of outstanding soloists, was one of the most powerful of the Swing Era, and he was possibly the first drummer in jazz history to rise to major stardom. But by the time he formed his first big band in the late 1930s, Krupa had been around for quite a while, as a studio musician in the 1920s and '30s and as a noted member of the Benny Goodman orchestra. In his book Really the Blues, Mezz Mezzrow talks at length about the early years of Krupa's career, and while with Goodman, the drummer also participated in recordings by the famous BG Trio and Quartet. His appearance at Goodman's epoch-making Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 was extremely successful—his high-octane drumming on "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)" during that concert was particularly memorable—and so he soon departed to form his own orchestra. Throughout the 1940s, Krupa had hit after hit with classics such as "Let Me Off Uptown," "Drum Boogie," the self-referential "Opus One," and "Thanks for the Boogie Ride," to name but a few, and his band was known for the quality of the sidemen, including Shorty Sherock, Sam Donahue, Don Fagerquist, Charlie Ventura, and most of all, trumpeter Roy Eldridge and vocalist Anita O'Day. The latter two brought even more colorful, exciting sounds to an already outstanding orchestra during their tenures with the band.

Anita O'Day and Roy Eldridge

It didn't help, though, that Krupa had to face a short jail sentence on drug charges in 1943, yet upon his release, he rebuilt his band and kept going until around 1951. This late-'40s orchestra occasionally featured arrangements by Gerry Mulligan and at times embraced the new sounds of bebop. The 1950s saw Krupa working in small-group settings and touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic packages, and towards the end of the decade, Hollywood produced a respectable movie about his life starring Sal Mineo, predictably titled The Gene Krupa Story. In 1956, Krupa cut a big band album for Verve entitled Drummer Man, fronting an orchestra full of great names, such as trombonists J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, and Jimmy Cleveland, altoist Hal McKusick, tenorist Eddie Shu, pianist Dave McKenna, and guitarist Barry Galbraith. It was a reunion of sorts, since Roy Eldridge and Anita O'Day share the spotlight with the drummer, and the song list consists mostly of remakes of Krupa classics like "Let Me Off Uptown," "Rockin' Chair," "Opus One," "Drum Boogie," and "Boogie Blues." The arrangements are by Quincy Jones, and although perhaps there could be a little more room for Krupa to solo, the band sounds tightly knit, the solos are exciting, and everyone seems to be having a wonderful time. "Leave Us Leap" is a perfect example of Krupa's energetic drumming propelling the band forward, and on his own composition, "Wire Brush Stomp," the drummer picks up the brushes and never misses a beat. "That's What You Think" is the only slow number, with O'Day singing mostly wordless lines, and "After You've Gone" is an appropriate closing, a vehicle for the trumpet of Roy Eldridge, who is as exuberant as usual on these sessions. The liner notes call this "a happy album," and indeed it is! Krupa slowed down the pace in the 1960s due to several health problems and passed away in New York City in 1973, at age 64.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Jazz Flashes Videocast # 2 - Herbie Nichols

Born in New York in 1919, pianist and composer Herbie Nichols was one of those jazz musicians who were so ahead of their time that their art was never fully recognized for what it was worth during their lifetime. Though Nichols became a cult figure of sorts after his death from leukemia in 1963, throughout his life he didn't get to lead his own groups too often and was mostly limited to playing alongside musicians who were far less talented than he was. There were exceptions to this, of course—Nichols worked with some fine jazzmen such as Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Illinois Jacquet, and Lucky Thompson, but these collaborations went mostly unrecorded, and the 1940s and '50s saw him performing in traditional dixieland contexts instead of the forward-looking kind of bebop that he preferred. In my new Jazz Flashes Videocast I briefly discuss the life, career, and musical legacy of Herbie Nichols. You may watch the video here:

Describing Nichols as a misunderstood, underrated jazzman actually sounds like an understatement. Not very many musicians recorded his compositions during his life (pianist Mary Lou Williams was an exception to the rule) and his recorded output is rather meager. In the video I mention two releases that are absolutely essential: The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Herbie Nichols is a three-CD set that contains all the sides Nichols cut for Blue Note in 1956, all of them in a trio setting, accompanied by Teddy Kotick or Al McKibbon on bass and Max Roach or Art Blakey on drums. In 1957 he led a session for Bethlehem Records, also fronting a trio, that was issued as Love, Gloom, Cash, Love. He was accompanied by George Duvivier on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums. The former, including 18 alternate takes, is the perfect introduction to Nichols's music, while the latter is also worth purchasing.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Duke Ellington at the Rainbow Grille, 1967

While Duke Ellington often led sessions with small groups, particularly in the early years of his career, unfortunately not too many of his recordings in an octet setting have survived. The Duke Ellington Octet at the Rainbow Grille, released by Gambit Records in 2006, presents one of them, a very interesting date at New York's Rainbow Grille from August 17, 1967, preserved for posterity due to the fact that it was broadcast by the CBS radio network, back in the days when the networks were still interested in offering high-quality live jazz to their listenership. The first five tunes on this album are apparently rehearsals that the sound engineer caught on tape while adjusting the balances in preparation for the broadcast. The first of these finds the Duke at the piano, wistfully playing a medley of two of his lesser-known compositions, "Heaven" and "Le Sucrier Velours," and in the background we can hear people chatting and glasses clinking, which suggests that nobody seems to be paying much attention to the performance. The whole octet begins to warm up next, using for that purpose classic Ellington numbers such as "In a Sentimental Mood" (which you can hear in the video at the end of this post), "Azure," and "I'm Beginning to See the Light," as well as a rocking tune called "Rock the Clock."

Then the broadcast proper begins, after an announcer urges the crowd to applaud as the band goes on the air, and the sound improves somewhat. The octet is made up of star soloists from within the Ellington orchestra, namely Cat Anderson on trumpet, Lawrence Brown on trombone, Johnny Hodges on alto, Paul Gonsalves on tenor, and Harry Carney on baritone, supported by a rhythm section that includes the Duke himself on piano, bassist John Lamb, and drummer Steve Little. This reduced lineup called for new arrangements, which in the hands of all these giants sound rich and full of excitement, giving all the horns plenty of chances to shine. The set list features many Ellington and Billy Strayhorn standards, such as "Take the 'A' Train," "Satin Doll," "Sophisticated Lady," "Passion Flower," "Solitude," and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," as well as Juan Tizol's "Perdido," which is ably performed here by Cat Anderson. Ellington himself, of course, is heavily spotlighted on piano, and his playing, as usual, is never less than superb. This is definitely a very welcome release, with personnel information and well-written liner notes that could, however, be a little more detailed. It appears that several other performances from this Ellington octet engagement exist, and judging by the quality of the music we can hear on this CD, they all deserve to be issued commercially.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Chet Baker's 1950s Trumpet and Vocal Sides on Pacific Jazz

Being among the first jazz records I ever heard, Chet Baker's trumpet-and-vocal sides for Pacific Jazz of the early- to mid-1950s will always have a special place in my heart. But beyond the purely personal, these recordings, made at various studios in Los Angeles between 1953 and 1956, are some of the most perfectly crafted sides of Baker's celebrated career. Baker is definitely a singer like no other: in the liner notes to Let's Get Lost: The Best of Chet Baker Sings, a 1989 CD containing 20 of Baker's Pacific Jazz vocal tracks, critic Will Friedwald describes his approach to vocalizing as "that rara avis that's a great deal more disarming than most items which demand that adjective." Disarming is, indeed, a very appropriate way to describe both Baker's playing and singing. His singing is never exuberant and always self-contained, revealing a kind of melancholy and shyness that's appealing precisely because, as Friedwald notes, it's emotionally disarming. When he sings, perhaps more so than when he plays, Baker emphasizes his most vulnerable side, almost whispering languidly sometimes, as though he were being overheard by the microphone. In this sense, Baker is more of a crooner than one might think at first. Unlike when he's playing his trumpet, when he's vocalizing, Baker seldom strays too far away from the melody and always succeeds in putting across the lyrics in a most effective way.

On most of the 20 tracks of this best-of vocal compilation, Baker is on vocals and trumpet (his obbligatos are sometimes overdubbed), leading a quartet that also includes Russ Freeman on piano and occasionally celesta, Carson Smith on bass, and Bob Neel on drums, although on some of the tunes we get to hear other musicians such as bassists Joe Mondragon and Jimmy Bond, and drummers Shelly Manne, Peter Littman, and Lawrence Marable. As expected, the repertoire draws from the Great American Songbook (the Gershwins, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, &c.) but many of the songs come courtesy of Hollywood songwriters such as Johnny Burke, Jimmy Van Heusen, and Buddy DeSylva. Baker seems to have taken many a cue from Frank Sinatra in these early years when his record label was still trying to take advantage of the fact that he was, well, rather easy on the eye, and not just on the ear. As a matter of fact, a surprising majority of the songs on this compilation are somehow related to The Voice, some of them ("Time After Time," "It's Always You," "Daybreak," "I Fall in Love Too Easily") even going back to Sinatra's years on Columbia and with Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. Of course, "My Funny Valentine" is the quintessential Baker vocal record, with its sparse introduction and its introspective vocals and lovely trumpet solo, but there are other Baker classics here, such as "But Not for Me" (taken at a rather brisk tempo, with a memorable trumpet introduction), "Just Friends," "Let's Get Lost," "Long Ago and Far Away," "The Thrill Is Gone," and "That Old Feeling." The rest of musicians back Baker in a most sympathetic way, and pianist Freeman proves to be just as important to the overall sound of the proceedings as Baker himself. Without a doubt, these 20 classic sides demonstrate that singing was an important factor in Baker's rise to prominence in the 1950s, and it was something he clearly enjoyed doing, since he would keep vocalizing almost right up to the end of his career.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Jazz Flash News: R.I.P. Irish Jazz Guitarist Louis Stewart (1944-2016)

My friend Guy Jones, of Stockholm, Sweden, recently alerted me to the passing of Irish jazz guitar legend Louis Stewart, who died on August 20. He was 72, and though not as well known in the U.S. as in Europe, he was well respected on both sides of the Atlantic by people in the know. Throughout his long career, he recorded with jazz greats such as Tubby Hayes, George Shearing, Joe Williams, Peter Ind, and J.J. Johnson, to name but a few. Stewart spent a big chunk of his life and career in his homeland, which perhaps may help explain why he wasn't better known stateside. From the few recordings I've heard by Stewart, it becomes immediately clear that he displayed a very exciting style, characterized by his dazzling speed and his flawless technique. He recorded quite extensively as a leader, starting in the mid-1970s, and in 1998, more than two decades after releasing his first album, he was recognized by Dublin's Trinity College with an honorary doctorate in music, a well-deserved accolade for a man who devoted his whole life to jazz.

Stewart was born in Waterford, in the Irish province of Munster, in January 1944, but John Chilton, in his book Who's Who of British Jazz, tells us that he was actually raised in Dublin. Stewart started on piano and concentrated on guitar in his teens, playing with several outfits and even touring the U.S. with reedman Jim Doherty in 1961. He relocated to London in 1968, which is when he started to work extensively with saxophonist Tubby Hayes. His versatility soon made him a much sought-after sideman, and in the 1970s he spent time playing with renowned jazzmen like Benny Goodman, Peter Ind, and George Shearing, as well as becoming a member of Harry South's big band and accompanying Blossom Dearie on a tour of Australia. In the '80s Stewart worked with Stephane Grappelli and also led his own groups off and on until very recently, appearing all over Europe, often unaccompanied. His debut album, 1975's Louis the First, is a good example of Stewart in his prime and features him in trio, duo, and solo settings, tackling standards such as "All the Things You Are," "Body and Soul," "Autumn Leaves," and "Here's That Rainy Day." Though not many of his records are easy to find in the U.S., his trio sides for MPS with Shearing and Norwegian bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen are available in the box set The MPS Trio Sessions, and his guitar duets with Martin Taylor are also highly regarded by critics. Any of these three options constitute good introductions to the very attractive sound of a guitarist who deserves wider recognition this side of the pond.

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)