Saturday, February 18, 2017

Musical Proverb of the Day

All jazz is local.

Whether some world famous jazz musician is visiting your city, playing to a packed theater with three balconies of adoring fans, or you're in some tavern with a band squeezed into a corner and competing with the television set over the bar, all jazz happens in real time with real people in the audience. It's the art of interaction; of the musicians giving something to you and you reciprocating in that place, at that time. It's the art of being present and joyous. It's the art the art that breaks down emotional barriers and allows for everything to come out. It's freedom in honesty, but it can't happen in a room by yourself. It can't happen over the internet via live streaming. It's the real breath of a person through a mouthpiece, the real strike of a hand on a drum skin, the real pull on a bass, the real bodies swaying to that beat, the real eruptions of enthusiasm or, equally important, the hush of reflection that settles over a crowd. There is no substitute for reality, and being who and where you really are. Jazz emphasizes that, and affirms the goodness of reality and existence, even in the midst of great troubles. So if you have some famous cat rolling into town tonight, go hear them: they are jazz for you tonight. But if not, don't be afraid to be a part of what jazz is: the real time sharing of something, of influencing the direction and sound of a band by your very presence. 

All jazz is local.   

Thursday, February 16, 2017

When the Jazz Wars Went Global * Ken Colyer & The First Traditional Jazz Band

Below is a short but fascinating YouTube video detailing the outbreak of one theater of the jazz wars: Great Britain in the late 1940s. Around that time, trumpeter Ken Colyer espoused the idea that real, traditional New Orleans Jazz had never left the city of its birth and that those who had moved to Chicago in the 1920s (King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, et al) represented an innovation. Following the light of his hero, Bunk Johnson, and determined to prove his thesis, he joined the Merchant Navy and worked his way to New Orleans where he sat in with many bands, including George Lewis's.

The result, both before and after his trip, was a split within the British jazz scene between New Orleans Revivalists and New Orleans Traditionalists. However hair splitting that might sound (it actually isn't), the creative tension and dedication of the musicians involved produced decades worth of extraordinary jazz.

Chris Barber, Monty Sunshine, and other seminal figures make appearances in this video--it's a great introduction to the vitality of the professional jazz scene and what players were willing to do for their art in the UK of the '40s and '50s.


Sidney Bechet & Albert Nicholas with Jelly Roll Morton * September 14, 1939 * Bluebird * NYC

Oh, Didn't He Ramble
High Society
I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say
Winin' Boy Blues

Stanley De Paris, trumpet
Claude Jones, trombone, speech
Albert Nicholas, clarinet
Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone
Happy Cauldwell, tenor saxophone
Jelly Roll Morton,  piano
Laurence Lucie, guitar
Wellman Braud, bass
Zutty Singleton, drums

Sidney Bechet plus Jelly Roll Morton equals a winning equation, no matter how you calculate it, and no matter how much tension there may have been in the studio at the time. These four tracks from September 14, 1939 serve as a quick proof. Opening up with a quote from "Flee as a Bird" for a solemn preamble, then the mock-solemn intonation...

Ashes to ashes, 
dust to dust,
if the women don't get ya
the liquor must...

...the band bursts into "Oh Didn't He Ramble", confidently swinging with a unanimous groove, each voice knowing exactly where to place himself. Bechet's soprano is comfortable, diving and singing, Stanley De Paris's trumpet well balanced (though apparently he and Bechet were not happy to find each other on the same date), and Albert Nicholas played the right supporting role along with the rest of the band before they break off for a dirge fade out.

The version of "High Society" they cut that day is of interest mostly for the rarity of hearing both Bechet (on soprano) and Albert Nicholas (on clarinet) play the "test solo." I'll let others come to their own conclusions as to who won this duel, but I think Albert delivers it more confidently and cleanly. His swagger for the last choruses of the tune seem to indicate pride in the accomplishment, and I can't help but wonder what Bechet thought of the resulting disc (it obviously didn't hurt his relationship with Nicholas, who he was to record with again, with great results).

The soprano soloing on "I Thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say" and "Winin' Boy Blues" are vintage Bechet and we are left, once again, wondering what would have happened if the association between Morton and the great soloist could have continued longer. But it wasn't to happen. Bechet had begun an engagement in Fonda, in upstate New York along the Mohawk River, and wasn't to make the return to New York City for the next session (Chilton, 123).

Just as so many of Jelly Roll's recordings sound like vignettes, so Bechet's time in the recording studio with him was just another vignette in the life of a great soloist. He would have one more recording session in 1939 as a sideman with The Haitian Orchestra, then turn his sites to leading his own band again. Perhaps the frustrations in the studio during 1939 made him realize it was time to take matters into his own hands as a leader, but whatever the impetus, 1940 would be a banner year for Bechet's legacy, and this date with Jelly Roll just a harbinger of things to come.

Further Reading:

Chilton, John. Sidney Bechet: The Wizard of Jazz. OUP, 1987.

Zammarchi, Fabrice. "Sidney Bechet". Notes to Sidney Bechet: The Complete American Masters, 1931-1953. Universal Music Classics & Jazz, France, 2011.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Nat Gonella's Georgia Jazz Band * Runnin' Wild * 1955

All of Me
Ain't Misbehavin'
Runnin' Wild
Satchmo Blues
St. James Infirmary
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
On a Slow Boat to China

Nat Gonella, trumpet + vocals
Archie Semple, clarinet
Roy Crimmins, trombone
Fred Hunt, piano
Bill Reid, bass
Johnny Richardson, drums

In many ways, it's difficult to imagine this was recorded in 1955. Jazz in the USA had moved far in the direction of bop and other modern styles, and the various revival bands in America often sounded either too polished on the one hand or too broadly nostalgic on the other. A useful parallel is 1955's Louis Armstrong plays W.C. Handy, which, while enjoyable in many ways, gives us such broad and grandiose versions of the tunes that it can feel as though we're listening to a tribute to a bygone era rather than experiencing living music.

By contrast, Nat Gonella--a seminal figure in the British Trad Jazz scene, admittedly decisively influenced by Armstrong in his style both as a brass player and vocalist--produced a live set here that, if we set aside our preconceptions, rivals the greats of the previous generation.

I've listened to this album repeatedly for the last couple of years, ever since stumbling upon it in an Intense Media 10 disc box set filled with gems of the European Trad Jazz scene of the '50 and '60s. At first, I wasn't sure what to think of it. I'd never heard Gonella, and the immediate comparison to Armstrong was obvious. As a general rule, we're taught to be wary of imitators, and there are many good reasons for this (some of them social, racial,  economic, etc--and all of them compelling). But I found this disc impossible to ignore for long. The performances are too satisfying to leave behind. Gonella's vocal takes on tunes such as "All of Me" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" are simply among my favorites. However much they might owe to Satch, they aren't copies, but real expression. Likewise, the unflagging energy of the band--the real thing, emotionally--can be difficult to find in any era. Because this is a live date (or a series of them compiled), the band isn't as stiflingly precise as studio dates can get. There is a certain natural raggedness to the group, and the balance of the microphones isn't perfect--the wind instruments tend to overpower the rhythm section. But I wouldn't trade that for the spiritual and emotional impact of this record. It has an elusive quality not even found on many live albums: the feel of a real live gig, unpretentious and un-self-conscious.

Archie Semple's clarinet playing seems the perfect compliment to Gonella's trumpet and vocal, in that his family resemblance to Edmond Hall (undoubtedly his template) is undeniable. But like Gonella, his ideas within the style are legitimate, original, and ring emotionally true. Roy Cummins's trombone, like so many of the British Trad trombonists of that era, is full, crisp and lush simultaneously. It's gotten so that I almost prefer the sound of British Trad brass to Americans at times (and for any American jazz musician, this is not easy to admit).      

For someone raised with the preconceptions of jazz history as taught here in America, all of this raises some interesting questions: if the mainstream of jazz education and criticism will accept generation after generation of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane imitators of various levels of worthiness; if such offerings can be praised as excellent examples of legitimate jazz, why shouldn't the same level of respect be given to those who have worked in the styles developed by earlier jazz giants? If Mozart isn't derided for following in the footsteps of Haydn, Mahler isn't condemned for his learning from Wagner, or Ravel for his debt to Satie and Debussy, why should Gonella and Semple be ignored in America because they learned their art from the likes of Armstrong and Hall? Their work alone is proof that they are not merely derivative, but instead expanded the great music we have by plowing forward in the style after it had been neglected, in many ways, in its homeland.

In general, the British Trad scene of the '50s and '60s demonstrated far less of the crippling anxiety of influence and cultural baggage than Americans carried with them. This is music of vitality, and sounds as though it could have been recorded yesterday. The box I found it in, for a ridiculously low price, is highly recommended, including albums by Acker Bilk, Ken Colyer,  Terry Lightfoot, Sidney Bechet, George Lewis, and others.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Eiji Kitamura * Seven Stars * Concord Jazz CJ 217 * 1981

Old Lads (Eiji Kitamura, Kazuo Yashiro)
The World is Waiting for the Sunrise
Satin Doll
Someone to Watch Over Me
I Wanna Go Home

Eiji Kitamura, clarinet
Teddy Wilson, piano
Cal Tjader, vibes ("Avalon", "Old Lads", "Satin Doll")
Ernestine Anderson, vocal (on "Someone to Watch Over Me")
Eddie Duran, guitar
Bob Maize, bass
Jake Hanna, drums

Coast Records, San Francisco, August 1981 (Released 1983)

1981 was a surprisingly good year for jazz clarinet, as it saw the release of one of Pete Fountain's best small combo recordings, Pete Fountain & Friends (Capitol Records), while Japanese clarinetist Eiji Kitamura recorded Seven Stars for Concord Jazz. Of historic significance, Kitamura's album was to be Teddy Wilson's last in arguably his finest setting: small combo work with a strong clarinet soloist.

Japanese audiences will already be familiar with Eiji Kitamura's playing, as he has had a prolific career spanning several decades, many albums, and television. For those unfamiliar with his work, though, this album serves as an impressive introduction. His playing is firmly in the Goodman-Fountain continuum, but unlike so many Goodman imitators, he is his own man. He has the blistering technique required of the style, and flashes it throughout the album, perhaps most on "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise." His tone is nicely balanced, with the biting quality needed for swing, but with it's own flavor of dusky depth in the chalumeau. He certainly has command of his style and the tunes, and while he is not a revolutionary, Kitamura is without question a confident master of swing clarinet. I was particularly grateful to hear his own tune, "Old Lads", blending so well with the rest of the set list and reminiscent of such tunes as Artie Shaw's "When the Quail Come Back From San Quentin." Kitamura's take on "Satin Doll" is one of the nicest by a jazz clarinetist on record. In it he goes from laid back to outspoken, from double time bop licks back to confident, well placed statements of melody. Likewise, his ideas on tunes like "Stardust" are never derivative,  and always interesting and original.

Teddy Wilson's playing seems to have been the perfect match for jazz clarinet. Light, yet colorful, never so dense that the texture gets weighed down; he never lost his inimitable ability to both support and step out, weaving his perfect counterpoint to the clarinet. Though he recorded with giants of the saxophone no less prestigious than Lester Young and Benny Carter, his playing never seemed as perfectly balanced, ensemble-wise as when playing with Benny Goodman, Edmond Hall, Dave Shepherd, or in this case Eiji Kitamura.

This isn't a nostalgic album. Each of the musicians approach the well known standards with vitality and a matter-of-factness that indicates their continued dedication to the music as a way of life. There is nothing earth shattering or ground breaking about the album, except perhaps the new ways in which they discover together the endless variations and potential of swing. Having said that, it's one of those albums every fan of jazz clarinet will want to know, of an excellent clarinetist deserving of greater international attention.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Some Thoughts on Unmixed Sound

Here are some thoughts of mine on music that popped up in my Facebook memory feed today. I thought they might just as well be shared here, as they have implications for jazz performance. I've noticed musicians like Paquito D'Rivera suggesting similar things over the last couple of years as well.


What would happen to our musical culture if there was a five year ban imposed upon light shows, auto tune, click tracks, concert mixing boards, and outrageous levels of artificial amplification?

The American public knows the difference between fresh food and frozen. Knows the difference between Madden and real football. Knows the difference between a real body and an airbrushed photo of a woman who had ten plastic surgeries. But most folks really have no knowledge of the difference between mixed and unmixed sound--or music done with or without producers making it sound acceptable.
Isn't it time musicians began promoting real, honest sound--coming from the actual breath or touch of the musicians?
Let's face it, folks...the real musicians in the industry are taking a pounding, economically. We're basically at the point where we have nothing to lose by being honest. So why not promote honest, real, intimate music making?
(And it's not just the pop industry that I'm talking about....) 

Sing for the Korg and only the Korg will love you.

There's a difference between Time and Pulse.
A click track will tell you one, but can't resuscitate the other.