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)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Cooking the Blues: The Buddy DeFranco Quintet on Verve, 1954

Buddy DeFranco
A graduate of the Big Band Era who played in orchestras led by Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, and Charlie Barnet, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco was responsible for bringing the clarinet into modernity. In the mid-1940s, at a time when the saxophone was quickly overtaking the clarinet as the most popular instrument in jazz, DeFranco was one of the few musicians to use the clarinet in a bebop context. Thanks mostly to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, the instrument had been extremely prominent during the heyday of swing, but the speed and complexity of bebop suddenly made it less than ideal for the new style. Taking many a cue from Charlie Parker, DeFranco worked hard to develop the technical ability required to play bebop clarinet in a successful and exciting manner. Born in Camden, NJ, in 1923, DeFranco was an almost obsessively disciplined musician who was constantly practicing and seeking new ways to improve his playing. One of the most forward-looking jazzmen of the '40s and with ample experience working with large combinations, from the '50s on he preferred to play in small-group settings, collaborating with the likes of Count Basie, Art Blakey, George Shearing, and Oscar Peterson, among several others. DeFranco devoted his whole life to music, recording and touring regularly and often winning the yearly polls of the most renowned jazz publications. By the time of his passing in 2014, he'd recorded dozens of albums, the invaluable legacy of a man who was always striving to innovate.

His stint on Verve in the mid-'50s yielded some of the most interesting projects DeFranco ever tackled, in particular two albums he cut in a quintet setting in 1954—Cooking the Blues and Sweet & Lovely, recently reissued on CD as a two-fer by Poll Winners Records. Both of them are delightful outings that find DeFranco on clarinet in the company of pianist Sonny Clark (who also plays organ on some tracks), guitarist Tal Farlow, bassist Gene Wright, and drummer Bobby White. The concept behind both albums is pretty much the same: clever boppish renditions of well-known standards along with one original per LP (Wright's "Cooking the Blues" on the former and Clark's "Moe" on the latter). There's an unmistakable warmth to the music, and the rapport between the five musicians makes for some pleasant listening. No wonder that both discs received five-star ratings from Down Beat upon their release in 1958, four years after the sessions actually took place. Of course, the two of them are essential, but in my opinion, the more bluesy component on Cooking the Blues makes it stand out. It includes beautifully relaxed readings of "I Can't Get Started," "Stardust," and "Little Girl Blue," and the title track, based on a catchy riff dreamed up by Wright, offers all participants a good chance for some inspired soloing. "How About You" is taken at a rather brisk pace and finds DeFranco tirelessly playing around with the melody, while "Indian Summer," played at a tempo that's faster than usual, makes for a very appropriate closing. Unfortunately, the quintet wouldn't make any more records after these sessions (Clark died only nine years after, in 1963), yet these two LPs are a clear testament to the enduring appeal of this band's work.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Earl Hines on Impulse, 1966

Earl "Fatha" Hines
One of the most important, innovative pianists in jazz history, Earl "Fatha" Hines influenced virtually every keyboard player who ever had a chance to listen to him, among them many greats such as Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson. Born in Duquesne, near Pittsburgh, PA, in 1905, Hines was playing piano professionally by the 1920s, as a member of several different bands, and working off and on with the likes of Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong, with whom he participated in some of the groundbreaking Hot Five sessions of the late '20s. A few years later, when it came time for Hines to lead his own orchestras, he proved to have a good ear for recognizing talent, and his outfits were always full of excellent musicians such as Trummy Young, Budd Johnson, Ray Nance, and a vocalist who would soon turn into a jazz/pop idol—Billy Eckstine. Critics have often hailed Hines as one of the first modern pianists, He never failed to swing with ease, and his bluesy style was definitely swinging, forward-looking, and flamboyant, making him one of the direct links between the old school of stride piano and the more modern sounds of swing. Hines survived the 1950s by inflecting his swinging style with the strains of Dixieland jazz and spent several years catering to the followers of the decade's Dixieland revival. And that takes us to the album we're reviewing today, perhaps one of the lesser-known entries in his prolific and enormously rich discography.

Cut for Impulse on two different dates in January 1966, the record is called Once Upon a Time, yet it might very well have been titled something like "Earl Hines Meets the Ellingtonians," since on these seven tracks he's surrounded by a host of Duke Ellington sidemen, though the Duke himself is absent. The collective personnel features, among others, great musicians like trumpeters Cat Anderson, Ray Nance, and Clark Terry; trombonist Lawrence Brown; reedmen Russell Procope, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, and Pee Wee Russell; bassist Aaron Bell; and drummers Sonny Greer and Elvin Jones. As critic Stanley Dance tells us in the liner notes, the idea was "to bring together past and present members of the Duke Ellington orchestra" and have them play alongside Hines and other greats like Russell and Elvin Jones. And the concept works perfectly: the material includes Ellington standards such as "Black and Tan Fantasy" and an explosive reading of "Cottontail," and each solo that unfolds is pure bliss. Both Hodges (the title track and the closer, "Hash Brown") and Hines himself (the lovely "You Can Depend on Me") showcase their talents as composers, and selections like Lionel Hampton's "The Blues in My Flat" (with some inspired singing by Nance) place the accent on the blues. The beautiful ballad "Fantastic, That's You" receives a quartet treatment by Hines, Hamilton, Bell, and Jones, and the Fatha sounds extremely comfortable both in a small-group setting and within the larger band, leading everyone forward with energy and authority. When it comes to albums by Hines, there's evidently a wealth of material to choose from, but this mid-'60s meeting with the Ellingtonians should be high on the list of must-haves by the Fatha.