Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Conversation with Guy Jones about Jan Lundgren's New Digital Reissues

Jan Lundgren
The Stockholm-based Fog Arts label has recently reissued three long-deleted albums by Swedish jazz pianist Jan Lundgren as digital downloads. I've already reviewed one of them in Jazz Flashes not too long ago, Jan Lundgren Trio Plays the Music of Victor Young. The other two are JLT Plays the Music of Jule Style and Something to Live For, the latter a Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn songbook. All three albums are available for download and streaming on all major internet platforms, and the Fog Arts people have further titles by Lundgren slated for digital reissue in the near future. For one of the episodes of the Jazz Flashes Podcast, which is available on YouTube and Podbean, I spoke with my good friend Guy Jones, the director of the Friends of Jan Lundgren fan club and General Manager of the newly formed Fog Arts label. You may listen to the whole conversation here:

Guy Jones
Throughout the podcast, Guy reminisces about how he became interested in Lundgren's music, how he started the Lundgren fan club, and how this new music venture came about. We also talk at length about the three Lundgren albums that are now available again after so many years thanks to the efforts of Fog Arts. All three CDs are highly recommendable and feature excellent guests such as singers Mark Murphy, Stacey Kent, and Deborah Brown, and legendary tenorman Johnny Griffin. I hope you enjoy the interview, and if so, please stay tuned for similar podcasts in the future!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

New Releases: Andy Brown's Direct Call

Born in New York but currently based in Chicago, Andy Brown, 41, is one of most accomplished jazz guitarist on the scene nowadays. Barely a year after the release of his lovely solo album, Soloist, Brown returns with an equally fantastic quartet outing entitled Direct Call (Delmark 5023), which very appropriately showcases the versatility and depth of his playing. Influenced by great guitarists such as Joe Pass, George Van Eps, Howard Alden (with whom he has also recorded for Delmark), and Kenny Poole, Brown has been around for quite a while and has had the chance to play alongside the likes of Harry Allen, Ken Peplowski, and Kurt Elling, to name but a few. He often collaborates with his wife, the vocalist Petra Van Nuis, and when in Chicago, you can always catch him at some of the most renowned clubs in the Windy City, such as The Green Mill and Andy's Jazz Club. At the latter he appears with his quartet, which is featured on this highly recommendable new album, and which includes Jeremy Kahn on piano, Joe Policastro on bass, and Phil Gratteau on drums. Writing in the October issue of Downbeat, critic Michael Jackson has called Brown a "classy guitarist" and his new CD "a swingin' affair," and he's absolutely right on both counts. It's at once rewarding and refreshing to be able to listen to this kind of unabashedly swinging music, and at the end of its 10 selections, the album actually leaves the listener hungry for more.

It doesn't hurt that Brown has had the opportunity to record with his working band, a group of outstanding musicians who understand one another perfectly. The CD was cut in a single session in Chicago in December 2015, and from the opening track, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges's "The Jeep Is Jumpin'," we have the instant feeling that we're in for a treat. Though the accent is always on the swinging nature of Brown's guitar playing, there's a wide variety of tunes on the album, from dazzling displays of technique and velocity like "Catch Me" to the funky and bluesy overtones of Hank Mobley's "Funk in Deep Freeze" to Latin excusions such as Johnny Mandel's "El Cajon" and the Jobim-Vinicius tune "Ela E Carioca," which is one of the highlights of the disc. The title track, "Direct Call" is a classy reading of "Appel Direct," taken from the Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli songbook and used as a vehicle to show off the seamless interplay between Brown's guitar and Kahn's piano. On the slower side we have "Relaxing," while the somewhat overlooked Hoagy Carmichael composition "One Morning in May" is taken at a faster pace. The strangely titled "Freak of the Week," with its hip, bluesy melody, is the perfect album closer, with some solid playing by Brown and some interesting contributions from Kahn. As noted, there's a lot of swing on the record, yet the most memorable track is a ballad. Russ Columbo's classic "Prisoner of Love," approached with gusto and elegance, showcases Brown's most lyrical, intimate side and is a pleasure to hear. Overall, this is an outstanding album that works as the perfect introduction to Andy Brown's exciting guitar artistry.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Jazz Flashes Videocast # 3 - Frank Sinatra Box Sets

As we're slowly approaching the holiday season, a new Frank Sinatra 4-CD/1-DVD box set has recently hit the stores. Entitled World on a String, it features live performances by Sinatra recorded between the 1950s and '80s in different locations around the world, including Monaco, Italy, Australia, Egypt, and the Dominican Republic. In many ways, it's a follow-up to the excellent series of sets issued in the past several years under the titles of Vegas, New York, and London, all of them offering unreleased concerts taped in those cities. Though I haven't gotten my hands on this brand-new set, it sounds like a great Yuletide present for the Sinatra fan, and its release has given me the idea to create this video where I discuss some of my favorite Sinatra box sets that have been made available over the years. You can watch this videocast here:

Frank Sinatra in Egypt, 1979
In the video I concentrate on the aforementioned city-specific sets, but I also go back to the beginning of Sinatra's career to review The Song Is You, which documents Young Blue Eyes' association with Tommy Dorsey between 1940 and 1942. I also discuss 1996's The Complete Capitol Singles Collection, which contains all of Sinatra's recordings for Capitol that were released as singles throughout the 1950s, and I talk about A Voice on Air, a beautifully presented set released last year that offers an overview of Sinatra the radio star between 1935 and 1955. I have deliberately left out the mammoth sets that include Sinatra's whole body of work for Columbia, Capitol, and Reprise in the belief that, though very recommendable, those are strictly for dedicated Sinatra aficionados. I hope you enjoy the video, whether you own these great boxes or not. In my opinion, they're all worth the money, and I like them all for different reasons that I hope to have explained successfully in the course of the videocast.

Frank Sinatra, the radio star in the 1940s

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Releases: Arthur Gunter's Excello Singles, 1954-61

Very few people remember bluesman Arthur Gunter today, and chances are that those who have heard of him have gotten to know his name via Elvis Presley. Indeed, Gunter wrote "Baby Let's Play House," which became one of Presley's earliest hits, but before Elvis got around to recording it, the song had already charted for its composer, who cut it for the Nashville-based Excello label in 1954. Besides the fact that it's an exciting, powerful title,  the song became a national hit partly because it was picked up and distributed by Chess Records, making it more widely available. Gunter spent the next several years attempting to recapture the excitement created by this song, but even though he made fine recordings such as "She's Mine All Mine" or "Honey Babe," none of his subsequent discs made the same impact. In fact, if Gunter is so obscure today, it's to a certain extent because his music hasn't been readily available on CD. A 1995 compilation of his Excello cuts has been out of print for a long time, but fortunately, the British label Jasmine Records has just issued Baby Let's Play House: The Complete Excello Singles, which gathers both sides of the 12 singles that Gunter made for the Nashville-based imprint between 1954 and 1961. These 24 tracks constitute the bulk of his recorded legacy, and often show the influence of great blues artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Slim Harpo, and another of Elvis's favorites, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup.

Born in 1926 precisely in Nashville, TN, Gunter began his career singing gospel in a family group, along with his brother Al Gunter, who would play guitar on many of Arthur's recordings for Excello. By 1954, when he signed his first record contract, Gunter was well known in the vibrant African-American music scene that, though sometimes neglected by critics, has always existed in the Music City, a location primarily associated with country music. On his first session for Excello (a label owned by the legendary impresario Ernie Young) Gunter cut his classic "Baby Let's Play House," which rose to number 12 on the R&B charts. The track epitomizes the Gunter sound, with its raw guitar and exciting vocals, and like many of the songs recorded by Gunter, was his own composition. Several more sessions followed in the next few years, without a great deal of success, although Gunter remained popular on the jukeboxes throughout the south. In 1958, his brother Al died tragically in the course of a barroom brawl, and it took Gunter two years to enter a recording studio again. By the time he resumed his career, in 1960, he was trying to cut slightly more commercial sides, including ballads like "Who Will Ever Move Me from You," and attempting to cash in on the new vogue for rock'n'roll that he'd helped usher in with "Baby Let's Play House." This never worked out, however, so Excello ended up dropping him in 1961, and five years later Gunter moved to Pontiac, MI, performing only occasionally. Gunter always regretted never having had the chance to shake Elvis's hand, but Presley's recording of "Baby Let's Play House" did provide the bluesman with some healthy royalty checks. By the time of his death, following a bout of pneumonia in 1976, when he was barely 49, Gunter was living comfortably in Michigan and had won $50,000 on the Michigan Lottery three years before. A unique bluesman, hopefully Arthur Gunter will finally come out of his current obscurity with the help of this very welcome Jasmine Records release.

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.