March 30, 2010

Herb Ellis (1921–2010)

Master jazz guitarist Herb Ellis has died. He grew up outside of Dallas, Texas, and first became serious about the guitar after hearing Charlie Christian play. He attended North Texas State University as a music major before having to drop out because of money issues. In the 1940s, he toured with the Jimmy Dorsey band before starting his own trio group, the Soft Winds. But it was when Ellis became part of the Oscar Peterson Trio (along with bassist Ray Brown) that he really hit the big time. This trio recorded a string of classics in the mid-1950s, including a number of songbook LPs (George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen). The trio also served as basically the house band for Verve recordings. A tacit tribute to Ellis’s greatness came when he left the Oscar Peterson group in 1958 – he was replaced not with another guitarist but with drummer Ed Thigpen.
Nothing But the Blues/Meets Jimmy Giuffre     One of my favorite albums is a Herb Ellis leader date, Nothing But the Blues (Verve, 1957). It includes an all-star line-up of Roy Eldridge on trumpet and Stan Getz on sax, along with a rhythm section of Ray Brown and Stan Levey. It’s a lot more Texas blues than we’d heard from Ellis elsewhere, and even some rocking boogie woogie ("Big Red's Boogie Woogie"). All the players are at the top of their game, with extended solos for everyone. Ellis keeps things swinging throughout, a nearly constant presence on every song, with several blues-saturated solos.
     He produced a number of terrific albums at this time, including Ellis in Wonderland, Herb Ellis Meets Jimmy Guiffre, and Thank You, Charlie Christian. Ellis then toured with Ella Fitzgerald and also was in the house band for the Steve Allen Show in the 1960s. He continued playing and recording into the 1990s, notably with the Great Guitars, where he was joined by Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, and Charlie Byrd. Guitarist Les Paul once said of Ellis, “If you’re not swinging, he’s gonna make you swing.” With his recorded legacy, we’ll do just that.

March 27, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sarah Vaughan!

Viva! VaughanSarah Vaughan’s long and storied career was larded with highlights, so it is nearly impossible to choose any short “best of” list. One of her most enjoyable albums for my money was Viva! Vaughan, recorded in 1964. This is a collection of tunes set to bossa nova and other Latin rhythms. Produced by Quincy Jones for Mercury Records, and arranged and conducted by Frank Foster (a veteran of the Count Basie Orchestra), the LP is big band jazz at its best, with five Latin percussionists setting the undulating beat. Although it appeared at the height of the bossa nova craze, the album didn’t sell.
     The song list is a mix of standards such as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Tea for Two” along with bossa nova favorites like “Jive Samba” and (a gender-altered) “The Boy From Ipanema.” One of my favorites is an Afro-Cuban flavored “Fever.” Vaughan is both sultry and playful in her vocal, responding on the fly to what the band is playing. She actually messes up the lyrics. She sings “Chicks were meant to give you fever/Be it Fahrenheit or Centigrade/They give me fever” but she meant to sing “give you fever” in the last phrase. In an attempt to recover, she then sings “when they kiss them” – a complete mangling of pronouns. But the song swings so well that all cross-purpose fevers and kissing are forgiven.
     “[Vaughan] had many voices,” stated arranger Foster. “She had a serious voice, she had a voice that approached operatic proportions, she had a top-drawer pop-singer voice, she had a jazz singer’s voice, and she had a little puckish, mischievous style she’d go into.” All of these voices are on display in “Quiet Nights (Corcovado),” the bossa nova classic. Her first pass through the song is playful, almost mocking of the whole sentiment of love, as she uses her voice to exaggerate the love-skeptical heroine. After the orchestral bridge, Vaughan takes it seriously with a gorgeous repeat of the song, ending with a contented sigh.
     You will, too, if you listen to this wonderful album.

March 26, 2010

John Coltrane - Alabama

The John Coltrane Quartet: John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones (1963)

March 24, 2010

The Cats

The CatsThe Cats is a somewhat obscure Prestige Records all-star session from 1957 that purrs like a well-fed kitten. And well-fed it is with a savory line-up that includes John Coltrane on tenor and Kenny Burrell on guitar. Although recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in his Hackensack studio, the record has a Detroit vibe – Burrell and the rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums are all natives. Burrell always has a bluesy Motor City tinge to his playing. Coltrane is in transition at the time of this recording. Having recently been booted from the Miles Davis Quintet, he is trying to clean up his act and will soon begin a collaboration with Thelonious Monk. Here, he sounds energized in his solos, perhaps feeling free to be more expressive than he was with Davis. His so-called sheets of sound style is in full flower, with some wonderful melodic lines morphing into impressive double-time arpeggios. This album is probably overlooked (the felines on the cover definitely want some attention) because both Burrell and Coltrane were about to enter a very creative and prolific period in their respective careers.
     But the real cat-in-chief on this date is Flanagan. His compositional skills are on display in four of the five tunes, and his playing is the focus of the other one. The album opens with “Minor Mishap,” a medium-paced hard bop song with solos from Coltrane, Burrell, and Idrees Sulieman (on trumpet). (There’s a wonderful version of Flanagan playing this song from later in his career on YouTube.) “How Long Has This Been Going On?” features Flanagan in a trio in a lovely version – listen to Hayes’ brush work on drums - of this Gershwin classic. The Caribbean-flavored “Eclypso” and “Solacium” are on the cool side of bop. But the highlight of The Cats has got to be the aptly named “Tommy’s Tune,” an extended (twelve minutes) song that gives everyone room to work out their ideas and really shine.
     Flanagan (1930-2001) was mostly known for being the accompanist of Ella Fitzgerald for many years, from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. He worked as a sideman on a number of seminal jazz recordings, including Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus, and Art Pepper’s Straight Life. He also recorded regularly as a leader later in his career. He deserves to be more widely recognized for his masterful piano playing and The Cats is an excellent place to start.

March 19, 2010

Avoiding the Elevator Shaft

Monk's DreamThelonious Monk once said, “All musicians are subconsciously mathematicians.” The problem for Monk was that he was working in trigonometry and most other musicians of his time were at best in advanced algebra. His conjugated music was notoriously difficult rhythmically and harmonically, and, of course, Monk himself was absolutely uncompromising in his playing, making soloing with him a challenge for all but the bravest (see Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane). Many listeners also found his music jagged and perhaps even unpleasant to listen to. Having just finished reading a biography of Monk, I’ve been listening to his music more and more recently and enjoying a new appreciation for it.
     One song I’m returning to again and again is “Five Spot Blues” from Monk’s Dream (1963), Monk’s first Columbia album and his best-selling LP. He first recorded this song several years earlier for Thelonious in Action (Riverside, 1958), a live date at New York’s Five Spot Café. His contract with Columbia was a sign that Monk had made it – gone from underground to mainstream – and many feel that his music lost a certain edginess. I think Monk was always an innovator and explorer right up to the end and Monk’s Dream has a sense of him coming into his own.
     Coltrane once said about playing Monk’s music, “Miss one chord and you feel like you’re falling down an elevator shaft.” Plowing straight ahead seems to be the best strategy and that’s what Charlie Rouse does here on sax on “Five Spot Blues.” Rouse is often slighted as a Monk soloist – he had the misfortune of following both Rollins and Coltrane in Monk’s band and suffered for it. He easily avoids the elevator shaft on this tune and seems to almost out-Monk Monk, playing with an angular and bluesy fervor. Monk on his solo explores the repetitive riff of the song in his usual obsessive-compulsive, and always interesting, way. John Ore on bass and particularly Frankie Dunlop on drums keep the proceedings percolating throughout the brief, three-minute song.

March 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Nat King Cole!

Performing "Sweet Lorraine" with the Oscar Peterson Trio and Coleman Hawkins

March 14, 2010

Dianne Reeves in Concert - Sheer Brilliance

When You KnowIf you haven’t heard Dianne Reeves live, you owe it to yourself to seek out one of her tour dates. You will get to hear one of the great jazz vocalists of our time. I had the chance to see her for the first time in San Francisco two nights ago as part of the SFJAZZ Festival and everything she touched turned to sonic gold.
     The concert, with Reeves backed by a quartet, included pop songs, blues, jazz, and world music. This is one of the common criticisms of Reeves - that she’s all over the vocal map – and I tend to fall into this camp as well. I would have liked to hear her take on more straight-ahead jazz. But I feel a bit miserly for thinking this because her musicality in all these genres is of the highest level. You can’t have too much of a good thing - really.
     The concert started with a couple of love songs from her latest album, When You Know. But the proceedings really took off when Dianne got to “Be My Husband,” a tune made famous by pop diva Nina Simone, a singer that she clearly has an affinity for. In fact, Reeves recently did some tour dates in Hong Kong and Australia in a tribute show to Nina. Reeves began by playing her voice like an instrument: not scat singing per se but rather a complex and extended rhythmic solo of astonishing versatility. This morphed into the sonic blast of “Be My Husband,” an anthemic song showing that she’s got the chops dynamically as well. Reeves also performed Simone’s “Do I Move You?” later in the show.
     The second set opened with Reeves and guitarist Romero Lubambo doing a lovely Brazilian-tinged version of “Our Love is Here to Stay.” This was the song that made me wish for more jazz standards from her. Her voice moves with a facility and playfulness that recalls the best of Sarah Vaughan. Reeves did perform a favorite of mine -  “One For My Baby” from her Grammy-winning effort in George Clooney’s 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck. But the highlight of the second half was a down home blues called “Today Will Be a Good Day,” composed by Reeves in honor of her mother. “Down home” in Reeves’ case was Denver, Colorado, and this is a rollicking good tune. (There’s a terrific version of Reeves doing this song on YouTube.)
     Reeves has been among the elite jazz singers for over twenty years now, and she still brings an immense sense of joy and sheer brilliance to her live performances. She once said of Nina Simone: “The thing I love about her spirit is there was no part of her self that she didn’t access.” It’s clear that Reeves also pours it all out in concert. Don’t miss her on tour if you get the chance.

March 10, 2010

A Must See for Duke Fans

Jazz Icons: Duke Ellington Live in '58Duke Ellington: Live in ’58, part of the Jazz Icons video series, shows the Ellington band at the top of its game. The November 1958 concert at Amsterdam’s famed Concertgebouw was filmed for television and also recorded for radio broadcast. The result is a gem: a great little black-and-white jazz film, a bit grainy due to late Fifties technological limitations, but with robust sound. It fully captures the magic of an Ellington date.
     Things get off to a mellow start – the band looks tired from having been on the road for several weeks - with “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and a lovely version of “My Funny Valentine” with a solo by Jimmy Hamilton on clarinet. They certainly don’t sound tired. All the featured soloists throughout step up to microphones at the front of the stage. The filming moves from full orchestral shots to close-ups of the soloists.
     The tempo picks up with “Kinda Dukish” and “Jack the Bear,” with Jimmy Woode featured on bass, both classic Ellington tunes that had been around for years. Johnny Hodges steps forward for a really swinging rendition of “All of Me.” His beautiful solid tone is on full display. My favorite was probably “Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool” featuring Shorty Baker on trumpet in a rhythmic and bluesy back-and-forth with Ray Nance, who just nails it on violin. Excellence is the order of the day with all the soloists.
     The second set opens with “Hi-Fi-Fo-Fum,” which includes an extended drumming exhibition from Sam Woodyard. There’s also a lengthy (thirteen songs) “greatest hits” medley of Duke’s music, including old favorites like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” The highlight is probably the brief vocal by Nance on “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” which includes a little scat singing and he busts some moves too.
     The concert comes to a rousing conclusion with “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue” with Paul Gonsalves doing the honors on the tenor sax. This was the same number that two years earlier at Newport caused the crowd of 7,000 people to go wild. On that occasion, the Duke kept Gonsalves up there for twenty-seven bluesy choruses. The Duke - always the consummate showman - was not one to let a good thing go, although he doesn’t carry things to quite such lengths in Amsterdam.
     Live in ‘58 is a chance to see Ellington and his band up close and putting on a great show. Highly recommended.

March 5, 2010

Lou Levy

Lou Levy started young. Born in 1928, he became a professional piano player at age 19 in his native Chicago. His style was strongly influenced by Bud Powell and also Art Tatum; considering it was the 1940s, this is not surprising. He could play bop piano with the best of them. In the late Forties, he played with Sarah Vaughan, Woody Herman, and Tommy Dorsey, among others. After taking a hiatus from jazz in the early Fifties to work in medical journal publishing in Minneapolis, he got the itch to get back in the game, especially when some of his old sidekicks came through on tour. (Medical journals were apparently no match for the bandstand.) He went to Los Angeles and worked as a sideman with Shorty Rogers, Stan Getz, and other “West Coast jazz” players. You can see him performing with Stan Getz in Italy on "Woody 'n' You" (1961).
Twelve Nights in Hollywood     But his true calling may have been as an accompanist to jazz singers. He worked with June Christy, Peggy Lee (Lou worked with her for nearly two decades, arranging and conducting, and can be heard on her best-selling Black Coffee), Anita O’Day, Ella Fitzgerald, and Pinky Winters. With Ella, he accompanied her on Ella Swings Lightly (1958), Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959), the recently released 4-CD set Twelve Nights in Hollywood (Verve, 2009) from 1961, and others. Lou would have been 82 years old today; he died in California in 2001.

March 1, 2010

Sand, Surf, and Sax: West Coast Jazz Album Covers

The idea of “West Coast jazz” was to some extent a creation of record company marketing departments in the late 1940s and 1950s. Sure, many of the musicians were working out of Los Angeles (primarily) and San Francisco in clubs like the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach. And, yes, many of them were part of the “cool” school of jazz (bossa nova was also thrown into the mix). But West Coast jazz was not an exclusive style of music – many West Coasters were hard boppers like their East Coast counterparts, although the West Coast varieties tended to be more compositionally based. Musicians often included in this school were Shelly Manne, Bob Cooper, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Bud Shank, and Dave Brubeck.
     It was record labels such as Contemporary and Pacific Jazz that really pushed the idea. One of the ways they did this was through their album covers. West Coast jazz albums often depicted images of beaches and lighthouses just to drive the point home and differentiate them from the urban/club settings found on many other album covers. A favorite tactic was to put the musicians on the beach – that's why Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars appear on a deserted, seemingly post-apocalyptic strand in suits and ties, pretending to play their instruments (rickety miniature piano included). There’s a Lighthouse live album of Cannonball Adderley that shows Cannonball and his band huddled under a beach umbrella, no doubt questioning their manager's judgment. And on one album cover, Lee Morgan (who certainly doesn't qualify as a West Coaster) sits holding his trumpet under a pier, perhaps wondering what the hell he's doing there.
     Since this was the advent of Playboy magazine and the nascent beginnings of the sexual revolution to come, jazz record labels also fell back on that timeless marketing axiom – sex sells. (Record companies producing classical, pop, and other types of music did this too.) For West Coast jazz album covers, this generally meant girls in bikinis. Art Pepper’s Surf Ride (Savoy) and another Howard Rumsey All-Star date have no problem showing some skin to push their tunes.
     As time went on, some covers became increasingly ludicrous. Contemporary Records’ You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce! is a classic example. The cover shows a woman in what appears to be a white laboratory coat, unbuttoned, and she is using a stethoscope to listen to her own heartbeat. The expression on her face is one of utter, open-mouthed ecstasy. Is she just a happy medical professional? A tickled heart patient? The most responsive jazz fan ever? She's having a good time, that's for sure, and we’ll leave to the imagination exactly what might be bouncing in this scenario….
You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce     The irony is that these albums almost always contained some outstanding music. In this case, Bounce features Counce on bass, Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Carl Perkins on piano, and Jack Sheldon on trumpet. The group really swings and the tunes may genuinely get your heart racing with excitement, even without the salacious, and amusing, cover.