February 27, 2010


Fantastic Frank StrozierAlto saxophonist Frank Strozier is not very well known, but he should be. Born in 1937 in Memphis, Tennessee, he was an intense hard bopper who never broke through to wide recognition. In the early 1960s, he recorded as a sideman with MJT + 3, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Roy Haynes, among others. His first recording date as a leader produced The Fantastic Frank Strozier (Vee Jay,1960). On the cover of this album, he looks like a junior high schooler, but the lineup he’s working with is definitely graduate level: Miles Davis’s rhythm section (Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb) along with Booker Little on trumpet. The results are remarkable. Little crisply articulates his solos, crafting intricate sentences on trumpet. Strozier contributes intense solos of his own with his signature biting tone, riding the edge of notes like a slalom skier on a steep downhill. Listen to "I Don't Know" from this album for a perfect example. None of the Johnny Hodges rounded, warm tone for Strozier - his playing is more restless and searching.
     He made a couple more albums (Waltz of the Demons and Cloudy and Cool) in 1960 – his banner year – but discovery never happened. Booker Little, who clearly was a rising star, died of liver failure the following year; he was 23 years old. Strozier moved to Los Angeles and got some work as a sideman (many of these recordings are out of print). He returned to New York in the early 1970s, but gigs were so scarce that he spent time teaching science in the public schools. The teachers' lounge must have been a swinging place; either that or this was a talented musician experiencing some soul-crushing tedium in the wilderness. Strozier attempted a comeback on piano and he made a couple of albums for Steeplechase in the mid-70s and then disappeared. This is regrettable because his stylish hard bop and edgy tone deserve to be heard more widely.

February 25, 2010

Lou Donaldson - Bye Bye Blackbird

Great version from Lou Donaldson, from a 1994 concert in Geneva, Switzerland

February 22, 2010

“Take Five” Has Lyrics?

Many would consider it sacrilege to put lyrics to the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic “Take Five,” a tune from the best-selling 1959 album Time Out that practically defined jazz for many people at the time. The single of “Take Five” was an amazing commercial success, the first million-selling jazz single on the Billboard charts. This was completely unexpected. Paul Desmond, who composed the song, said that “Take Five” was never meant to be a big hit - it was primarily supposed to be a vehicle for a Joe Morello drum solo.
     The instrumental version is so ubiquitous, and the 5/4 time of the song so distinct, that it’s difficult to even imagine it sung with lyrics. So, who would do such a thing? Dave Brubeck, of course. As “Take Five” was topping the charts in 1961, Brubeck and his wife, Iola, came up with the lyrics for a live performance by Carmen McRae at Basin Street East in New Orleans. And she apparently had to sing it without rehearsal. “When Carmen sang ‘Take Five,’ there weren’t many vocalists singing in 5/4 times and she had no time to prepare for that either,” recalled Brubeck. “It was just put in front of her and ‘sing this.’ That took a lot of nerve and talent. Maybe I should put ‘talent’ first.”
     This version is an absolute delight. The lyrical story presents a woman who has been trying to get the attention of a man without much success. She is rather fed up with his passivity, shyness, or inaction. McRae is the perfect singer for this, her voice edged with weary sarcasm as she beseeches her pathetic object of affection. Here, then, are the lyrics to “Take Five.”

     Won’t you stop and take a little time out with me, just take five.

     Stop your busy day and take the time out to see I’m alive.

     Though I’m going out of my way, just so I can pass by each day, 

     not a single word do we say, it’s a pantomime and not a play. 

     Still I know our eyes often meet, I feel tingles down to my feet,
     when you smile that’s much too discrete, sends me on my way.

     Wouldn’t it be better not to be so polite? You could offer a light.

     Start a little conversation now, it’s alright, just take five, just take five.

     The song originally appeared on the Columbia album Take Five: Live at the Basin Street East (which is still available as an import, I believe) and is included on Brubeck’s compilation album Vocal Encounters. You can also hear this vocal version on YouTube.

February 19, 2010

Life Lessons from Jazz

If one were to write a book about life lessons from jazz, what would it include? Certainly, the lives of jazz musicians are full of both blues and abstract truths. And there are plenty of examples of what could go wrong as well. But what kind of guide to life can be discerned from jazz? Here are some initial thoughts.
  • Practice - Jazz history is full of spectacular debuts by an unknown, the sudden appearance on the stage of a new talent. What remains hidden in most cases is the the years of obscurity spent learning to get to that stage of expertise. Sonny Rollins practicing alone on the Williamsburg Bridge comes to mind.
  • Find your sound - Each person has a particular talent that they need to find and develop.
  • Learn to play well with others - In most cases, you'll go only so far as your band takes you.
  • Keep improvising - Don't get bogged down in repetition. Keep challenging yourself.
  • Don't go off the deep end - Discipline and focus are critical as well, needed to avoid the pitfalls and distractions that inevitably come up in life.
     That's what I've come up with. Anybody have additional ideas to add to the list?

February 17, 2010

Cannonball Adderley Quintet

Playing "Scotch and Water." Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, Nat Adderley on trumpet, Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones on bass, Louis Hayes on drums.

February 14, 2010

A Good Week for “Baby Face”

Face to FaceOn January 23, 1961, saxophonist Lou Donaldson recorded Here ‘Tis, his first album as a leader with an organ quartet. He was trying to get a sound closer to the basic blues. “We tried to play the blues like they were originally played,” Donaldson stated. “Like a conversation with the instruments – just talking to each other.” For this session, he brought in a couple of new faces: Grant Green on guitar and Roosevelt “Baby Face” Willette on the B-3 organ. (He looks like a teenager, hence the moniker.) The results were just the kind of funky sound he wanted on both the driving songs like “Watusi Jump” and on the brooding title tune.
     Blue Note took notice of the newcomers. Five days later, Green recorded Grant’s First Stand, which was his debut album but, in spite of the title, actually his second session. Willette appears on this album as well. Two days after that, Willette recorded his debut album, Face to Face, with Green on guitar and Fred Jackson on sax. All of them shine on the album. Willette composed all but one of the songs, and they all have a propulsive, deep groove, provided by Willette on the organ with his use of sustained rhythmic notes. Jackson has a bluesy, showy style on sax that uses all the tricks in the book. And Green sounds heavy and funky on the guitar on “Goin’ Down” and flying on “Swingin’ at Sugar Ray’s.”
     Grant Green went on to be one of the stars of Blue Note. Willette, on the other hand, recorded only a handful of additional albums after this. Then, he largely faded from the jazz scene. He had always been an itinerate musician, touring with R&B and gospel groups in the Fifties and returning to this life in the Sixties before settling in Chicago. He died in obscurity in 1971 at the age of 37. Still, “Baby Face” had a spectacular debut here in 1961 and left behind a small legacy of great grooves.

February 12, 2010

In Praise of Mr. T

Tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine was born in Pittsburgh in 1934. He came from a musical family – his father, mother, and brother all played instruments. He played with rhythm and blues bands in the early 1950s before moving into jazz with Earl Bostic, Max Roach, and others. Throughout his career, he recorded with Blue Note, CTI, Fantasy, and other labels. He died in 2000.
     The original “Mr. T” is one of my favorite musicians, particularly for his Blue Note albums in the 1960s. He is underappreciated as a sax player, probably because of the more popular, cross-over material he did in the 1970s and 1980s. And perhaps he did become too commercial - success has its price, I guess. My feeling is that the material Turrentine did with Blue Note is so outstanding that he deserves reconsideration.
     Turrentine did some excellent work as a sideman with organist Jimmy Smith. Back at the Chicken Shack, Midnight Special, and Prayer Meetin’ show a great rapport between the two as they exchange bluesy solos. Also as a sideman, Turrentine appeared on one of my favorite albums of all time, guitarist Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue (1963). This deeply grooving album is the very definition of the Blue Note sound at this time, and Burrell and Turrentine try to top each other throughout. There’s not a dud on the album.
     His albums as a leader with Blue Note are also winners, a kind of soul-jazz soundtrack for the Sixties. His first, Look Out!, contains some great blues licks and that big tenor sound of his, particularly on Stan’s own compositions “Little Sheri,” “Minor Chant,” and the title tune. He has a very masculine and smooth tone, never harsh. A more subdued but still bluesy Stan can be heard in small group settings on Up at Minton’s and Blue Hour.
Hustlin     One of my favorites is his album Hustlin’ from 1964. The great B-3 organist Shirley Scott (also Stan’s wife at the time) and Kenny Burrell set the ground groove, with Stan bubbling above on sax. It opens with a great version of “Trouble” followed by a gospel-tinged number by Scott called “Ladyfingers” with powerful solos by both Scott and Stan. “Goin’ Home,” based on the Largo movement from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, provides a lilting and melancholy coda to the album. Hustlin’ showcases both his fat burnished sound on ballads and his more earthy, blues sensibility.
     Perhaps Turrentine was more of a straight-ahead player than a virtuoso, but his polished yet blues-drenched solos provided a distinctive voice on the sax for half a century. His place in the jazz pantheon ought to be moved up an octave.

February 10, 2010

February 7, 2010

Jazz Giants ‘58

Jazz Giants '58This is not your run-of-the-mill jam. Blowing sessions like this were fairly common in the 1950s – a group of prominent jazz players were chosen, often ones who had never played together before, thrown into a studio for a day or two, and the tapes rolled. Sometimes you got good but unimaginative music, and other times you got magic. This album falls into the latter category.
     Jazz Giants ’58 was put together by Norman Granz at Verve, and he got a stellar cast: Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Harry “Sweets” Edison, the Oscar Peterson Trio, and Louis Bellson. It’s a little bit of old school – Edison (who played with Basie) and Bellson (who played with Ellington) – and a little of the new – Getz and Mulligan. Recorded in August 1957, it comes near a cusp in jazz history, with free jazz forms appearing on the horizon. But unlike the conventional evolutionary timelines in jazz – swing giving way to bop giving way to free jazz – this album shows that the breaks are not so clean and that swing and bop greats can make some wonderful jazz together.
     Nominally a Stan Getz led album, in Jazz Giants ’58 everyone gets a star turn. The music clearly benefits from the presence of Mulligan, who did the arrangements and provides a little structure to the proceedings. The first tune, “Chocolate Sundae,” is a perfect example. It begins with a Ray Brown bass solo, followed by Mulligan on baritone, and a swinging Herb Ellis guitar solo. Then a sweet Oscar Peterson piano riff introduces Getz’s solo, who doesn’t appear until five and a half minutes into the song. The rhythm section really kicks in behind Getz and the song starts swinging hard. But then “Sweets” comes in for an extended solo and steals the show. One can hear the Basie influence in his playing, in the ability to sound just the right note and give it so much meaning and feel. It was Lester Young that gave Edison his nickname for just this quality.
“As far as playing jazz, no other art form, other than conversation, can give the satisfaction of spontaneous interaction.” 
     Other selections on the album include “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Candy” (with a classic Mulligan solo on baritone full of swing and longing), a medley of ballads (“Lush Life,” “Lullaby of the Leaves,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “It Never Entered My Mind”), and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘n’ You” (taken at a very brisk clip). Stan Getz once said, “As far as playing jazz, no other art form, other than conversation, can give the satisfaction of spontaneous interaction.” The conversation on this session was clearly a warm one among equals. Far from a jam, this is jazz of the highest order.

February 4, 2010

Pete Kelly’s Blues

Jack Webb is not an actor one easily pictures playing a musician. For those familiar with his work as Sergeant Joe Friday on the Dragnet TV series, you know that his emotional range as an actor is from wooden to glum. So, it is surprising to find him in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) in the title role as a jazz cornet player and bandleader. Swing he doesn't....
     The story takes place during Prohibition (1927 to be exact) in Kansas City. Pete and his Big Seven Band, a hot ticket on the speakeasy circuit, are targeted by the local mob boss (played by Edmond O’Brien in full chew-up-the-scenery mode), who extorts “management fees” from the band. Pete’s love interest is a local socialite played by Janet Leigh. Unlikely but true casting choices include Lee Marvin as the clarinet player (a precursor to his vocal stylings in Paint Your Wagon) - the laconic way he moves is somewhat reminiscent of Dexter Gordon - and Andy Devine in an understated role as a lawman, sans ten-gallon hat, pursuing the mob. The movie includes some voice-over narration in Webb’s one-note drone (a la Dragnet). Describing one of his band’s gigs, Pete deadpans: “You could put the whole crowd in a bathtub and still have room to splash around.” The gangster story and the love story, plodding plots both, meander along to a rather unlikely happy ending.
“You could put the whole crowd in a bathtub and still have room to splash around.”
     But the real treat for jazz lovers is the music. No attempt is made to play authentic music circa 1927, but the snippets of jazz heard throughout the film are quite good. Peggy Lee, in an Oscar-nominated role, plays Rose, a washed-up alcoholic singer forced on Pete’s band by the mob boss. She sings a couple of complete tunes, “He Needs Me” and “Sugar,” before drinking herself senseless and winding up in a mental institution. (Playing crazy is always good for an Oscar nod.) And Ella Fitzgerald appears in the film as well to sing two tunes, “Hard-Hearted Hannah” and the title song. The film basically stops and lets Ella sing; she also has some dialogue.
     Jack Webb, who also directed the film (with a more deft touch than his granite-faced acting), was a jazz fan in real life, and it shows in this film. He had an interest in the cornet in particular, and he was married for a time to the torchy songstress Julie London. Webb even recorded an album of himself speaking lyrics over musical arrangements, including a rendition of “Try a Little Tenderness” that shows he didn’t try enough.
     This Warner Brothers picture was shot in CinemaScope and WarnerColor, so it looks and sounds beautiful. The film is available through Netflix. In spite of its flaws, I definitely recommend it for jazz fans.

February 1, 2010