Jazz music, news and views

Monday, August 28, 2006

Lester Young

Yesterday would have been Lester Young’s 97th birthday, which sent me searching for updates on the recently discovered recording in the Library of Congress. No more news yet, it seems, but enjoy some videos below:

This is a 1957 CBS “Sound of Jazz” performance of “Fine and Mellow” Billie Holiday with Young alongside Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan, Roy Eldridge, Vic Dickenson and others. Webster’s solo is gorgeous, and Pres and Mulligan are beautifully simpatico.

In this 1950 performance, Young is featured with Bill Harris, Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich on “Pennies from Heaven” with an ad-lib intro.

Check out some more videos of jams with Pres and other notables here, filmed around the time of Jammin’ the Blues in 1944.

Friday, August 25, 2006

RIP Maynard Ferguson

Trumpeter and bandleader Maynard Ferguson passed away this Wednesday, August 23rd. Early in his career, the Montreal native served in bands led by Jimmy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and Stan Kenton. It was with Kenton's group (1950-53) that he came to fame for his impressive trips into the registral stratosphere. He performed in studio bands and small ensembles but is best known for his astonishing big band performances as a leader. After studying meditation and teaching music for a year in India (where he would return regularly throughout his life), he relocated to England in 1968 and played with a regular 17-piece band before moving to New York City then eventually settling California. "Settling" is a relative term, though; he was a relentless ambassador for the music, maintaining an exhaustive touring itinerary of recordings, clubs and concert halls, not to mention universities and schools. (While many of my high school and college bandmates and I would question how tasteful or practical Ferguson's high-note acrobatics were, we all confessed to having our favorite Maynard chart or performance. Mine was "Birdland" from Carnival. For some reason, I also enjoyed "Fireshaker" from Live from San Francisco.)

The instrumentation and sensibility of his groups changed over the years, ranging from big band and swing to jazz rock, fusion and funk, but the listener could always expect a stunning display of chops, precision and showmanship. He passed away from kidney and liver failure at 78 years old. His last recording will be released next year, preserving his memory along with his 60 other albums as a leader.

New York Times
A remembrance from Stockton Helbing, Ferguson's drummer and musical director.

NPR Jazz

Ferguson, 22 years old, soloing with Stan Kenton's Orchestra
Ferguson in the early '70s
Ferguson with Serafin Aguilar

Contributions may be made to the Maynard Ferguson Music Scholarship Fund at University of Missouri, St. Louis.

Now Playing (08.25.06)

In an effort to bring more artists and albums to your attention without my wordy, cumbersome reviews (though you'll never be completely free of those), I’ll be posting “Now Playing” lists periodically. Some of the albums will be new releases, some older, and all titles will be linked to places to buy the album.

Of course, most titles are available on Amazon.com, which is sometimes the best place to find some things, but try to support the artist/label when you can!

John Abercrombie: Cat 'n' Mouse
Avishai Cohen: Continuo
Dave Douglas: Keystone
Moncef Genoud: Aqua
Marc Johnson: Right Brain Patrol
Lost Tribe: Many Lifetimes
Kate McGarry: Mercy Streets
Brad Mehldau: House on Hill
Walter Smith III: Casually Introducing Walter Smith III
Pharoah Sanders: Thembi

Monday, August 21, 2006

Carol Robbins: Jazz Play

While the majority of playes discussed in mainstream jazz circles play... well, "mainstream" instruments, there are a few performers who have truly made their distinct voices heard on instruments on the jazz periphery. Carol Robbins, a jazz harpist, is one such talent today.

There is always the danger of giving either too much or not enough credit to the player of such a rare instrument due to its novelty, but Robbins's musicianship is not just for a "niche" audience; her lyricism and technique are apparent to any jazz fan. Born in Chicago, Robbins grew up in Los Angeles and was initially trained on the piano. After discovering jazz improvisation, she took up the harp and began studying with jazz's best known harpist, Dorothy Ashby. Today, Robbins is the jazz world's premier harpist and a notable talent across genres for her studio work (her resume includes performances alongside artists as varied as Bjork, Brian Wilson, Linda Rondstadt and Nina Simone).

Her newest release Jazz Play features several original compositions as well as standards with performances from some L.A. studio staples: guitarist Larry Koonse, trumpeter Steve Huffsteter, reedman Bob Sheppard, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Tim Pleasant. Tracks like "Buddy's Bite" and "Tangier" showcase her lyrical writing as well as some tender harp solos that alternate between single-note lines and chord melody. Sheppard's soprano solo on the latter tune sings with clarity (both of tone and construction), and Huffsteter spins a thoughtful solo on muted trumpet on the former. "Sollevare" is another Robbins original with its bright melody over breezy harmonies (Koonse's tone hints a bit at John Abercrombie here during his solo). The string instruments give a rendition of Jobim's "O Grande Amor" with Oles and Pleasant subtly pushing the group along underneath, and the classic "Skating in Central Park" gets a jaunty but gentle reading with a mellow tenor solo from Sheppard.

In addition to Robbins's striking gift for melody, what's special about this album is the eerie yet pacific vibe about it. The combination of guitar and harp strings invokes a mannered, classical sound that contrasts perfectly with the horns. Plus, the absence of piano keeps the music open, creating a spacious atmosphere that lets Robbins's musicianship shine through.

Buy Jazz Play.

Also, check out her work on Billy Childs's recent Grammy-nominated album, Lyric.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

RIP Duke Jordan

Too many deaths in the jazz world recently...

As one of bebop's consummate pianists, Duke Jordan is perhaps best known for his late '40s work with Charlie Parker who hired Jordan when he was 25 years old. While this is some of his most famous work, he was a prolific player in his own right (and a composer as well, penning the classic "Jordu," which was first recorded by Clifford Brown and Max Roach). He passed away on August 8th at 84 years old.

Influenced early on by pianists like Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum, he made his debut on 52nd Street in his native New York with Coleman Hawkins's band, then freelanced in various combos until he was discovered and hired by Parker. The '50s found him alongside other saxmen including Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons.

While bebop tunes were often short and Jordan's playing was limited to brief solos and even briefer intros, the magic Jordan was able to conjure up during those moments with Parker were personal and potent even in their most distilled form. The world gradually heard more of what he had to say when he began recording for the Danish label Steeplechase after he moved to Denmark in the '70s. He has a number of albums in their catalogue.

For an incredibly thorough discography, though, visit the Jazz Discography Project.

N.Y. Times

RIP Moacir Santos

Brazilian arranger, composer and multi-instrumentalist Moacir Santos is best known for his talent for writing, but he first came to fame as a player. Born in rural Brazil (in Pernambuco), he moved around the country as a performer, having learned banjo, guitar and mandolin as well as some brass and reed instruments from playing in bands. He was known primarily as a sax player with an affection for Lester Young, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. He worked in radio orchestras (serving a notable stint at the largest Brazilian station at the time, Radio Nacional) as well as military, ballroom and touring bands. Around this time, he began to gain recognition for his arranging and writing and began composing soundtracks for Brazilian films. His most famous work in this regard, however, is Amor no Pacifico (Love in the Pacific), and its success prompted him to travel to the U.S., debuting his music in New York City before eventually settling in Southern California (Pasadena, specifically). He taught from his home and was something of an "unknown" here until being "discovered" by Horace Silver.

Several of his compositions have resurfaced in the recent albums Ouro Negro and Choros & Alegria. The latter was his last album; the former features several arrangements by Mario Adnet and Ze Nogueira of Santos's "Coisas" ("Things"), which was the title and concept of his debut as a leader in 1965.
"I always had anxiety about producing music with the erudite cataloguing, like 'Opus 3, No. 1.' When Baden Powell came to study with me and invited me to participate in an album [...], the recording engineer asked me the name of the music, and I answered: 'It's that one thing...' That's when the idea to number the music occurred to me."
He passed away on August 6th at 80 years old.

L.A. Times
N.Y. Times
Chicago Reader
World Music Central

Brazilian Music

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dom Minasi: The Vampire's Revenge

Lagging significantly behind my colleagues Etnobofin and Straight, No Chaser, I wanted to draw your attention to Dom Minasi's latest album, The Vampire's Revenge. One might expect something cliched or cheesy when one pops an album inspired by the occult literature of Anne Rice into the stereo, but Minasi's vision is actually quite fresh, and his daring improvisations are sincere.

In fact, while many guitarists might be tempted to reach for their effects pedals to find the most Transylvanian sound effects possible, Minasi's sound is actually quite naked; the listener can focus wholly on his statements rather than sonic peculiarities (though those have their place, too!). Minasi and his cohorts are never sparse in their ideas, though. Centered around his core trio with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Jackson Krall, Minasi recruits several top-tier improvisers to tackle his compositions with all the rawness they can muster on this double-disc.

Clocking in at almost two hours, Revenge houses a wealth of sounds both written and spontaneous. The long-toned arco-bass-and-reed swells of "The Seduction" are punctuated by a simple, sinister three-note melody with Minasi's 12-string acoustic guitar providing some jangly dissonance. His muted but furious exchanges with Perry Robinson on clarinet are harrowing. The claustrophobic, creeping arrangement for reeds, brass and strings on "Just One More Bite" gives way to an anguished dialogue between reedman John Gunther and trumpeter Herb Robinson. Minasi's electric guitar is warm and warbly, while vocalist Carol Mennie's startling cries bring the group tension to terrifying (yet humorous) heights. Throughout, some cathartic tutti sections balance the collective improvisations. The close of the tune finds the instrumentalists coaxing some extreme sounds from their axes (harmonics, ponticello bowing, notes at the ends of their registers, etc.). "The Dark Side" finds the core trio joined by pianist Matthew Shipp, whose dazzling and percussive approach gives the tune an unbelievable depth. Borah Bergman's own piano performance on "Blood Lust" is just as stimulating; he and Minasi trade some visceral statements before a fanfarish ensemble section. The horn interplay of tenorist Joe McPhee, flugelhornist Paul Smoker and trombonist Steve Swell on "The Hunt" is volcanic before Minasi delivers a brief blues-inflected statement in the seventh minute before engaging in conversation with Smoker's horn, then McPhee's. Jackson Krall's brushwork here is expert and attentive.

The seeds of The Vampire's Revenge were first sewn a decade ago with the title track becoming a staple in Minasi's songbook, and, like all inspired works, it has grown significantly since its genesis (with much deliberation and perserverance from Minasi, of course). His vision is ambitious, but this record hardly falls short of any expectations: fiery and fresh performances, varied instrumental settings, a balance between compositions and improvisation and, not to mention, a healthy dose of humor.

The Vampire's Revenge

More Minasi listening:
"DMP" from Time Will Tell
"Quick Response" from Quick Response

Read interviews with:
All About Jazz
Jazz Guitar Life

Interview clips from his website

Friday, August 04, 2006

(Web)streams of Expression

Musicians and fans alike often speak of the malleability of Joe Lovano's sound; the fluidity of his style is, perhaps counter-intuitively, what makes him so identifiable. He is equally powerful in hardbop, bebop, free jazz and large ensemble settings, and he's able to unite these sounds in a cohesive album, song or even solo if you give him enough choruses. On a broader scale, his discography itself embodies this flexibility. His newest effort, Streams of Expression is a welcome addition, exploring the ground-breaking aesthetic of Miles Davis's 1940s debut album Birth of the Cool. Half of the album is dedicated to Lovano's own five-part Streams of Expression Suite, commissioned in 2001 for the Monterey Jazz Festival. Distinguished composer, arranger, musicologist, historian and educator Gunther Schuller worked extensively with Lovano on the Birth of the Cool Suite, adding touches of his own while retaining much of the velvety voicings of the original orchestrations. (Schuller himself played French horn on one of the original Cool sessions and even conducted a rather complex coda penned by Gil Evans on "Moon Dreams," which he revists here).

Works so deliberate, especially those bearing the marks of Third Stream, are often labeled as "thinking man's jazz," too cerebral to be simply enjoyed, but these pieces have rewards for any kind of listener: melodic and/or fiery solos, memorable interpretations and an estimable band including Tim Hagans, Steve Slagle, George Garzone, Gary Smulyan and the late John Hicks.

But for the listener who does want to dig deep, you can dig some videos from the Streams of Expression website with footage of the recording session and intelligent interviews with Lovano and Schuller. Grab a drink and enjoy: Schuller's insights on Gil Evans's demanding yet fruitful orchestrations; Lovano's elaboration on the origins and inspirations of his Streams of Expression Suite; a look at the custom-made Aulochrome (like a double-soprano sax); a portrait of the man Lovano himself.

And, of course, buy the albums:
Joe Lovano: Streams of Expression
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool
eXTReMe Tracker