Singer Anita O'Day turned 87 in October but passed away last Thursday morning, November 23rd, 2006 from cardiac arrest while battling pneumonia. The Chicago native started singing in Gene Krupa's band in 1941, which helped heighten the 23-year-old singer's profile, and her fame grew after a hit performance of "Let Me Off Uptown" with Roy Eldridge (who was hired by Krupa shortly after her). Their presence and chemistry drew more ears to Krupa's band. After a stint with Stan Kenton and returning to Krupa, her own career began with 1955's Anita, which was the first album released on Verve Records.
Over the course of the '50s and '60s, the height of her career, she battled with drug addiction and suffered an overdose that nearly took her life in 1966. She kicked her habit cold turkey and resumed working, and in 1981 she published her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times. There should be a release of a documentary on her life, "Anita O'Day: the Life of a Jazz Singer," in the near future.
She was always lauded for her unique feeling of swing. Her phrasing was so personal it could almost be considered idiosyncratic. Her voice was slightly husky but also lilting and unadorned. Apparently, a doctor who performed a tonsillectomy on her in her youth had accidentally cut her uvula, which meant that she could not sustain long notes or use vibrato.
In a 1981 Newsweek article on O'Day, writer Charles Michener observed: "The dynamic range of her voice may be smaller than any other jazz singer's except Blossom Dearie's, but her flexibility with it allows her to scat, slide and skitter through a song the way a cat's tongue laps up milk."
The same year, O'Day told the Christian Science Monitor: "When you haven't got that much voice, you have to use all the cracks and the crevices and the black and the white keys. That's all the range I've got. I'm no Lily Pons or Sarah Vaughan."
But she was always herself, and that was more than enough -- elegant, resilient, feisty and swinging.
Vocalist Ruth Brown died last Friday, November 17th from complications from a stroke and a heart attack. She was 78 years old. Known always as a strong, earthy, soulful singer, her career took off when she signed to Atlantic Records in the late '40s. Though she wanted to sing more ballads, the label urged her to try more upbeat material, which suited her well, though she would change and evolve greatly as an artist over a long, hard career.
Cutting her teeth in Lucky Millinder's band, she was hired in 1946 and fired the next year. Stranded in Washington, D.C., Voice of America radio host Willis Conover discovered her and pushed her to Atlantic Records. After a period of success in the '50s with some chart-topping sides and tours on the rhythm-and-blues circuit, she settled in Long Island but faced some lean years for a while. She spent some time as a bus driver, a teacher's aide and as a maid, went through a handful of romances, marriages and divorces, raised two sons and eventually made a comeback. Resettling in Las Vegas after playing Mahalia Jackson in the 1976 musical "Selma," her strong return to the scene was bolstered by her Tony Award-winning Broadway appearance in "Black and Blue." Her Blues on Broadway album won a Grammy for Best Female Vocal Jazz Performance, and four years later, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In addition to her career in performance, she advocated for her fellow musicians, voicing her objections to the unfair contracts that withheld royalties from artists who, like her, made hit tunes for their labels but were never issued checks. Thanks to her speaking out on the issue, Atlantic Records agreed to pay twenty years' worth of past royalties due to her labelmates. Another result was the founding of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, to which Atlantic contributed almost two million dollars.
She was nicknamed "Miss Rhythm" by "Mr. Rhythm," Frankie Laine, as well as "the girl with a tear in her voice," a moniker inspired by her recording of "Teardrops From My Eyes" where her voice cracked slightly. The sound became something of a signature, but her over the years her performances also became much bluesier and deeper. No doubt her life experiences gave new layers to her performance. The timbre of her voice was attractively rough, deepened by soul and lifted by her strength in song. In addition to the qualities of her voice, she could croon, cry or belt a tune with singular style. She could deliver heartbreaking blues or sassy swing. Appropriately, her fans say that "R&B" stands not only for "rhythm and blues" but also for "Ruth Brown."
Two "making of" videos of two very different bands:
1) As much as music videos can cement associations between meaningless images and otherwise meaningful music, it's nice to get a behind-the-scenes glance at a band, especially one that presents itself as obliquely as TV on the Radio does (view their blog for evidence). The new album, Return to Cookie Mountain, retains much of the brooding, churning, industrial grit of Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes or Young Liars but with slightly slicker production. Hard to imagine the MTV crowd digesting this alongside the pop flavors of the month. Nonetheless, check out "Making Of the Video" for "Wolf Like Me" (the actual music video is here).
2) On Aja in 1977, Steely Dan hit their stride with a well-produced, synthy blend of contemporary jazz and rock and quirky tunes that endeared them to fans who generally stayed fans (as their sound rarely wavered over the years). "Peg" has long been a favorite of Dan fans with its "pocket" groove and bright chords, not to mention some signature close, crunchy vocal harmonies. Check out the song's ingredients in this video from the Aja DVD which includes interviews with frontmen Fagen and Becker plus Michael McDonald, bassist Chuck Rainey and drummer Rick Marotta.
Rifftidesreminds us to check out the Lennie Tristano Festival, a marathon broadcast on WKCR, 89.9 FM from Columbia University. Be sure you tune in to hear Tristano's complete recordings and interviews round-the-clock through Saturday at noon. Tristano, an innovative figure discussed (and debated) in his own time, is underappreciated today. We often associate his name with the "cool" aesthetic, a kind of airy, detached manner of performance, which, contrary to its connotations is hardly passionless. In fact, the oft-mentioned complexity of his lines, phrasing and polyrhythms required deep involvement, and his fellow improvisers followed suit (Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh and Billy Bauer are his most notable sidemen and disciples). The seeming aimlessness of Tristano's playing incited the following commentary from critic Martin Williams during a listening exam at the Lenox School of Jazz (from John Gennari's Blowin' Hot and Cool: Jazz and Its Critics):
Mostly fatuous piano doodlings to me -- a man swimming around under water with his eyes shut... No melodic or rhythmic imagination... All harmonic but not arpeggios -- pseudo-melodies. Bauer (not a jazzman, I think) on guitar pleasant and empty. Typical suspended ending -- off into nothing (but from nothing and through nothing, too).
True, one would not often hear the arpeggios of the beboppers like Bird and Diz in Tristano's playing, though Tristano did play with them on some recordings. His improvisations tended more towards lengthy linear statements. They may have been "pseudo-melodies," but Tristano was never lack for imagination. His approach and feel was relaxed, which was due to his intuitive playing rather than nonchalance. Unpredictable does not necessarily mean arbitrary, and "cool" does not necessarily mean cold. (On another note, the "eyes shut" comment was either highly coincidental or malicious. Tristano was blind.)
Saxmen Gary Foster and Mark Turner are a couple Tristano-admirers who come to mind most readily to today's listeners, but shades of Tristano can be heard in his piano confreres: Herbie Hancock's single-note lines (from his days with Miles Davis's second quintet) as well as some of his chords; Bill Evans's restrained but lush voicings; Dave Brubeck's penchant for odd phrasing, meter and rhythmic superimpositions. Pianist Alan Broadbent is a former student of Tristano's and while Broadbent's musical vision is certainly different, his teacher's presence is felt now and again in his playing today.
Hearing Tristano's own music, of course, is the best way to understand his inventions. I'd recommend the compilations Intuition and Lennie Tristano/The New Tristano, but tune in to WKCR's special as well (see their schedule), and view a video from a 1965 performance in Berlin. You can hear some familiar elements like walking left-hand bass lines and swing feel, but his ability to draw new ideas out of himself is uncanny. Brief but inspiring.
26 years old at the time of this writing, Walter Smith III could be considered something of a phenomenon, being a young saxophone talent with prodigious skills and a fresh style. Having graduated from his performing arts high school in his native Houston, from Berklee with a degree in Music Education and from the Manhattan School of Music with a masters in Jazz Performance, he will graduate in 2007 from the Thelonious Monk Institute. Of course, his development has not been limited to the classroom. Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, Eric Reed, Ralph Peterson, Darren Barrett and numerous others have featured him in their performances, and he has moonlighted briefly with pop acts Lauryn Hill and Destiny's Child.
His debut, Casually Introducing Walter Smith III, features not only some well-crafted original compositions but also some lesser known tunes from some of his influences. On the opener, Sam Rivers's "Cyclic Episode," Smith weaves a complex solo, elaborating on the motifs in the melody. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire's solo has a definite arc of its own with some bright, melodic upper-register lines. Smith is sensitive but hearty, drifting over Mingus's "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love," which is beautifully spacious as a trio performance (sax, bass and drums). Guitarist Lionel Loueke, known for his inspiring, unpredictable playing, gives a lyrical solo on his own contribution, "Benny's Tune" (originally recorded on Terence Blanchard's Flow). Smith follows suit with some fleet lines, and pianist Aaron Parks spins some ideas inside and outside of the anthemic chord changes. Smith's own pieces are highly inventive and varied in style. "Wooden Box (Spatula in Three)," a light, unhurried waltz, features Smith's warm tone contrasting with Parks's crystalline chords. The warbly, circular soprano sax/guitar/Rhodes lines of "Tail of Benin" are hypnotic with some knotty solos from Smith, Parks and Loueke, who employs some intriguing guitar effects here. "Kate Song"'s sonic qualities are as alluring as its melody and harmony. Robert Glasper's fills on the Fender Rhodes murmur in dialogue with Parks's luminous piano. Harland is supplemented by Matt Kilmer on electronic hand percussion. The climax is Smith's own solo: his powerful statements are tempered by Gretchen Parlato's voice, singing the same solo in unison. The resulting timbre is both striking and delicate, and the chord changes are gorgeous.
In a recent interview with me, Smith talked about his move from Berklee in Boston to the Manhattan School of Music:
When you move to New York, you're kind of "on the scene," which can be good or it can be bad for you because you definitely have stuff to "work out." If you're in New York, you're in the presence of everyone else while you're working it out, whereas I kind of felt like, when I was in Boston, [...] it was more of like an incubator so that when I did move to New York, not that I was totally ready, but I felt like I had a little more maturity [...].
So instead of blazing onto the scene with hype and fanfare, Smith has inserted himself into it rather modestly -- or casually, if you will. Though young by some standards, he has maturity, a distinctive voice, an attractive debut album and a brilliant future ahead. He deserves some hype. Casually Introducing Walter Smith III (Fresh Sound New Talent) Walter Smith III (tenor sax) Gretchen Parlato (vocals) Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) Lionel Loueke (vocals, guitar) Lage Lund (guitar) Aaron Parks (piano) Robert Glasper (Fender Rhodes) Reuben Rogers (bass) Vicente Archer (bass) Eric Harland (drums) Kendrick Scott (drums) Matt Kilmer (electronic hand percussion) [collective personnel]
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