Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Two-Sentence Jazz Reviews, May-June 2017—Part I

Due to a recent trip to Europe, I haven't had the chance to publish anything in Jazz Flashes, but I did write some very brief reviews of jazz albums I heard and/or purchased while overseas on my Facebook page. Now that I am back, I have compiled these two-sentence reviews on this post. I hope you find something to your liking among these outstanding records—and stay tuned for the forthcoming second part!

Buddy Tate and His Buddies (Chiaroscuro, 1994)

Saxophonist Buddy Tate's buddies—trumpeter Roy Eldridge, saxist Illinois Jacquet, pianist Mary Lou Williams, guitarist Steve Jordan, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Gus Johnson—are mostly jazz royalty, musicians who feel at ease in each other's company and enjoy playing together. This powerful, blues-drenched 1973 New York City date is truly a masterclass in first-rate small-group swing and blues, five selections that give all participants plenty of room to shine and surprise the listener with their inventiveness and exciting knack for improvisation.

Emil Viklicky—Live at the Box (Petr Bielicky, 2014 / Fog Arts, 2017)

Always the experimentalist, Czech jazz pianist Emil Viklicky feels at home distilling a mixture of jazz, classical, and Moravian folk music, as he does in Live at the Box, recently reissued for digital download and streaming by the Stockholm based Fog Arts label. This 2011 live date finds Viklicky in a trio setting, with Frantisek Uhlir on bass and Josef Vejvoda on drums, running through a varied selection of his highly personal compositions, the kind of eclectic jazz that surprises and grows on the listener with each play, with the highlight being bassist Uhlir's "Father's Blues."

Gerry Mulligan & Scott Hamilton—Soft Lights and Sweet Music (Concord, 1986)

Though perhaps not as well known as it deserves to be, this is a memorable tenor-baritone saxophone meeting between Scott Hamilton and Gerry Mulligan, cut in the mid-1980s for Concord in a quintet setting with Mike Renzi on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. It's a mostly uptempo affair with a fair share of Mulligan originals, and the mutual understanding between both saxophonists makes for some extremely satisfying listening.

Howard McGhee—Maggie's Back in Town (Contemporary, 1961)

After quite a spell away from the studios due to drug-related problems, trumpeter Howard McGhee came back on the jazz scene with this amazing album that showcases his bop-inflected playing in the company of fantastic musicians like pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Shelly Manne. The result is one of the best bop records of the early 1960s, an inventive, exciting run through a few standards, an original composition by McGhee, and two Teddy Edwards tunes, all of which makes it clear that Maggie (as McGhee was known to his friends) was definitely back!

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!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East, 1961

One of the smoothest and most successful jazz and pop vocalists of the 1940s and '50s, Billy Eckstine was also one of the most forward-thinking, as we can infer from the lineup of his famous orchestra of the mid-'40s, which included soon-to-be famous jazzmen such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Art Blakey, among many others. Not only was Mr. B a fantastic vocalist, but he was also an intelligent man who made his mark socially and politically. As critic Will Friedwald has noted in his Biographical Guide, "before Louis Armstrong or Nat King Cole dared sing anything other than the blues or novelties, Billy Eckstine was among the first to show the world that the black man could be intellectual, passionate, sensitive, literate, articulate, proud—and profound." Indeed, Eckstine was all this, but most of all, he was profound: his voice was rich and deep, and he imbued everything he sang with a depth that very few singers in jazz, pop, or any other style could even dream of achieving. He felt at ease singing different types of music, but he excelled at the art of the ballad, particularly that of the intimate, emotionally deep variety, like his big 1947 hit, "Everything I Have Is Yours." No wonder that his female fans—black and white alike, in a time of open segregation, no less—went wild over him. He was simply just that deep, that emotional, that attractive.

Producer and arranger Quincy Jones.

By October 1961, when he was recorded live at Basin Street East in New York City, Eckstine's hit-making days were pretty much over, yet he was still at his peak vocally. For this engagement at the legendary club, Mr. B assembled a fantastic orchestra including great musicians such as trumpeter Joe Newman, trombonists Curtis Fuller and Melba Liston, and altoist Phil Woods. With Quincy Jones at the helm and taking care of the arrangements, the results couldn't be anything but outstanding. The album kicks off with a spirited R&B-inflected reading of "All Right, Okay, You Win" that makes it instantly clear that Eckstine still has it and that the listener is in for a real treat. After jokingly describing himself as "the Fabian of the forties," Eckstine goes into a lovely medley of three ballads ("I'm Falling for You," "Fool That I Am," and the classic "Everything I Have Is Yours") that show his mastery of the romantic ballad to great effect. Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night" is infused with a tasteful Latin beat that suits Eckstine's style perfectly. Next comes one of the highlights of the album—a medley of four Duke Ellington standards that work very well together and that Mr. B performs effortlessly, apparently in front of Ellington himself, who was in the audience on that particular night. Eckstine then moves into more contemporary territory, and his interpretation of Nat Adderley's "Work Song" is surprising for its gospel undertones. The album closes with a fun, swinging rendition of the Con Conrad novelty "Ma (She's Making Eyes at Me)" that once again indicates Eckstine's versatility. Released on Mercury as Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East, this is one of Eckstine's best live records, and my only complaint about it is that it's entirely too short.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Charlie Parker Jams on Verve, 1952

While certain critics consider that producer Norman Granz was responsible for encouraging Charlie Parker to veer away from bebop somewhat and venture into more commercial territory, there's no doubt that Granz also helped widen Bird's horizons. It would be enough to mention the classic album Charlie Parker with Strings, in which Parker is paired with a string section to create a masterpiece that has stood the test of time and that would later be imitated by countless jazz soloists. But the producer influenced the career of the saxophonist in other ways, as well. Granz was very involved in the production and promotion of live jazz gatherings known as Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), all-star groups of jazz musicians who interacted in a jam-session format and who toured both the U.S. and overseas. Many of these live concerts have been preserved on tape thanks to Granz's foresight, and the producer also organized similar studio sessions with an eye to releasing them commercially. One of these, cut in July 1952, involved Parker, who was joined by a stellar cast that included Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges on alto sax, Ben Webster and Flip Phillips on tenor, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Oscar Peterson on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and J.C. Heard on drums.

Jazz producer Norman Granz

It's well known that all-star dates can be hit or miss, but from the very first bars it seems clear that this one is most definitely a winner. The length of the four cuts recorded (all of them over 13 minutes each) affords plenty of room for each soloist to show off his undeniable talents, and nobody gets in the way of anyone else. The result is a classic jam session that keeps surprising new listeners several decades after its original release. The meeting of these jazz greats is bookended by two bluesy compositions, "Jam Blues" and "Funky Blues," which work perfectly as vehicles for each participant to explore familiar musical territory in a succession of imaginative solos that allow us to experience different approaches to the blues idiom. Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love," introduced by an energetic piano solo by Peterson, is taken at a breakneck tempo and serves as an excuse for some inspired blowing by everyone. Finally, the cut simply entitled "Ballad Medley" presents the group at its mellowest and most intimate, as they tastefully run through a selection of slow standards by Jerome Kern, Matt Dennis, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and others. Throughout the whole session there's that kind of electricity created by a group of excellent musicians who feel comfortable playing together and who constantly spur each other on to achieve new heights with every new solo. The album has been issued on CD as Charlie Parker Jam Session, and its contents are also available as part of the five-disc set The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions, which also presents other similar jams produced by Granz in the same time period. While there are other Bird recordings that one should listen to first, in my opinion this remains one of the most satisfying dates of his remarkable career.