July 30, 2012
Among many fine jazz alto saxophonists of yesteryear are three who deserve to be remembered rather more than is the case. They are Pete Brown, Tab Smith and Earl Bostic. All three of these fine jazz musicians played with verve, generating excitement and enthusiasm among listeners and dancers. And because they lived when and where they did, their repertoire and playing styles ranged widely. In particular, they covered the jumping jazz style that cross-pollinated with R&B in the 1940s and 50s and even when they were in ballad mode there was always an earthy subtext that appealed widely.
Pete Brown was a remarkably gifted multi-instrumentalist, becoming one of the most distinctive alto saxophonists in jazz and was a foremost member of the small number of swing era musicians to make the transition to bop. He was born James Ostend Brown, on 9 November 1906 in Baltimore, Maryland, and throughout his teenage years established a solid local reputation. Chafing at the limitations of working in his home-town, he expanded his horizons by playing in Atlantic City. That still wasn’t enough for him end when he was 21 he moved to New York City, making this his permanent home. Although his instrumental arsenal was wide, the alto saxophone was the instrument upon which he made his name.
Sometimes as leader, other times as sideman, his reputation grew throughout the 1930s as a vigorous and inventive player with a quirky and wholly distinctive sound. Towards the end of the decade, as driving blues-based jump bands became increasingly popular, Pete’s aggressive and inventive style was a perfect match. Already a 52nd Street favorite, as the 1940s began, he was on hand when the bop revolution thrust irrevocable changes upon jazz. Unlike the majority of Pete’s contemporaries, his saturation in swing era music did not inhibit him from taking on board the concepts of bop. Indeed, his clipped phrasing, allied as it was to the in-built aggression of his style and his gritty sound suited certain aspects of the new music. Pete was equally as comfortable in the concurrent milieu of R&B small bands. His rasping solos, filled as they were with wit and invention, provided a model for many alto and tenor saxophonists in that genre.
Similarly stylish and direct was alto saxophonist Tab Smith whose playing made him an instantly identifiable jazzman but one whose fame was always less than he deserved. He was born Talmadge Smith, on 11 January 1909 in Kinston, North Carolina, and became a gifted multi-instrumentalist although it was on alto saxophone that he made his name. During the 1930s, Tab’s reputation spread and was often called upon for recording sessions with artists such as Billie Holiday, Earl Hines, Charlie Shavers and Coleman Hawkins. He also led his own band, showcasing his forceful playing on both alto and soprano saxophones. His solos have a restless urgency, his sound attractively burred and possessing a surging intensity that was one of the reasons why he was able to make a success of his transition into R&B. Even so, by the end of the 1940s, he was playing only part time.
Although his playing style had similarly earthy undertones, Earl Bostic was the most overtly romantic of these three jazzmen. He was born Eugene Earl Bostic on 25 April 1913 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Another gifted multi-instrumentalist, he played guitar and trumpet as well as various reed instruments but it was his alto saxophone work that brought him fame. Before that, he paid his dues working in territory bands and with many leading lights of the swing era. Formally trained in music, with a degree in music theory from Xavier University, the early 1940s saw him in the right place at the right time when the bop revolution struck. A regular at Small’s Paradise and at Minton’s Playhouse, he played with all the new rising stars of modern jazz.
Pete Brown’s distinctive playing attracted the attention of other musicians and among those who drew upon his work for some of their own inspiration – and in some cases were tutored by him – were Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker, Cecil Payne and Flip Phillips. Throughout the 1950s, persistently poor health limited Pete’s activities although he did make an appearance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, fortunately captured on record. He died in New York City on 20 September 1963.
In the early 1950s, Tab Smith made some R&B recordings that proved to be popular, among them his version of Because Of You, an R&B chart-topper. Thanks to success like this, he was able to keep afloat a new band for some years. But then, late in the 1950s, when times were again hard, he abandoned full-time music. From then on he still played, but was now an organist in a restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri, where he had made his home. He died in the city on 17 August 1971.
Earl Bostic had most success with recordings made from the mid-1940s to the early 1950s with his own band for the Majestic, Gotham and King labels. These brought him lasting fame and some fortune, notably the considerable success he had with R&B-styled versions of Temptation, Sleep, You Go To My Head and Flamingo, the last-named reaching the top of the R&B charts. By the 1960s, Earl Bostic was venturing into soul but his health was suffering and on 28 October 1965, he died while playing a gig in Rochester, New York.
Today, it is hard to imagine that either Pete Brown or Tab Smith would fit into the smooth jazz category although Earl Bostic might well enter that genre without too much upheaval. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why these fine, distinctive, hard-swinging jazzmen only rarely attract the attention of record companies engaged in reissue programs. Pete Brown’s 1940s independent label recordings and his 1950s albums for Bethlehem and Verve remain hard-to-find even if transferred to CD although Complete 1944 World Jam Session (Progressive) and From The Heart (Verve), the latter a 1960s recording, are attractive exceptions. Like so many players who were undervalued in their lifetimes, Tab Smith did not make nearly enough records but those that he did show him to be a musician who is deserving of a reappraisal. Some of his work can be heard on Ace High (Delmark) and Crazy Walk (Delmark). Perhaps because of his extensive hit parade successes, Earl Bostic has been much better-served with several CD reissues among which The Earl Bostic Story (Properbox), a 4-CD boxed set, is an extremely good example. One thing is certain, even if it takes some searching, the work of Pete Brown, Tab Smith and Earl Bostic is thoroughly recommended to all those who enjoy muscle on the bones of jazz.
Been here . . .
. . . and gone
July 25, 2012
During his short life, Django Reinhardt influenced many jazz guitarists. It could hardly have been otherwise. He was an innovative genius; in a word, he was original.
This man, who appeared to have come out of nowhere, seemed not to have built his playing style on that of any other jazz guitarist, continues to influence jazz guitarists, many of whom were born after he died.
Django had the most unlikely beginnings, born into a gypsy life, with all the prejudice and discrimination that meant. He was born Jean Baptiste Reinhardt an 23 January 1910, in Liberchies, which is near Luttre, Belgium. Living a nomadic life with his gypsy family, he first played violin but later took up the guitar and worked in a touring show before he was in his teens. Everything could have come to an abrupt stop when in 1928 he suffered serious injuries in a caravan fire. The worst of the damage was to his left hand, and ever after he could not use two of his fingers. Remarkably, Django devised a unique method of fingering the guitar and began a solo career in clubs, mainly in Paris, where he soon made startlingly clear that he was different. It was in Paris, in 1934, that he and violinist Stéphane Grappelli formed the Quintette Du Hot Club De France.
With this group and through sitting in with visiting American jazzmen, Django made many records and swiftly earned an international reputation. In today’s pop music world, international sensations happen often, real and manufactured; at the time, the late 1930s, it was unusual and in his case even more remarkable because non-Americans simply did not make an impact on jazz. He did, and it was an impact that has continued to have its effect through the decades.
Directly affected by Reinhardt was his co-leader of the QHCDF, Stéphane Grappelli. Apart from his work in that group, he can be heard on many albums because he lived a long life and enjoyed a full career, being eagerly embraced by a new young audience from the 1970s onwards. An interesting CD of Grappelli’s music is Improvisations (Essential Jazz Classics), which draws mainly from recordings made when the violinist was between his first key period, when he was alongside Django, and the second, which came after he had become a notable figure on the world stage. This in-between spell, the mid-1950s, can be heard here on sets that are particularly rewarding, in part because Grappelli is no longer playing second fiddle to Reinhardt but is an increasingly confident leader. Perhaps deliberately, he largely avoids comparisons by working without a guitar on many tracks. He does, though, return occasionally to his roots and in whatever group setting displays invention and swing, is always thoroughly melodic, and consistently demonstrates how jazz can be simultaneously light-hearted and emotionally fulfilling.
A near-contemporary of Django’s was Oscar Alemán, a self-taught Argentine guitarist who visited France in the 1930s where he encountered Django and completely embraced the new style of jazz guitar playing. The extent of his conversion can be heard on Swing Guitar Masterpieces (Acoustic Disc), recorded in Copenhagen, Paris, and Buenos Aires between 1938 and 1954. Later in his career, Alemán began to play with more reference to his South American heritage, but the impact Django had made never left him as can be heard on Buenos Aires 1965 1975 (Frémeaux).
The lasting impact of the QHCDF can be seen from the number of bands that have followed their example through the years. For example, there is the New Quintette Du Hot Club De France, a group led by Django’s son, Babik Reinhardt (1944-2001), and who can be heard on a self-titled 1998 recording reissued on Frémeaux. This CD demonstrates the respect Babik and his companions had for the original creators of this style although, fortunately, Babik was clearly aware that his father was inimitable and he and his colleagues seek not to copy but to breathe the master’s spirit. Similarly breathing the spirit is the Hot Club de Norvege, a band formed in 1979 and still playing today. Guitarists Jon Larsen and Per Frydenlund, bassist Svein Aarbostad and violinist Ivar Brodahl (later succeeded by Finn Hauge) appear on a number of well-received albums, among them Swing de Paris (Hot Club) and Django Music (Hot Club).
Then there is Austrian gypsy guitarist Harri Stojka, who can be set amidst the front runners in the specialist field of those who perpetuate the airily swinging music of Django. Harri’s playing is deft and fleet; his single note lines are dramatic and swing fluently. Harri can be heard on A Tribute To Gypsy Swing (ZoHo) on which his violinist is Eva Berky. Together, they play many items that nestled in the repertoire of the QHCDF, notably Reinhardt’s own compositions, Nuages and Nuits De Saint-Germaine-Des-Pres. This is exceptionally attractive music, played to perfection by a fine guitarist.
The USA is not left out of the admiring circle of enthusiasts of the music of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli. On a 2004 CD by jazz singer Connie Evingson, Gypsy In My Soul (Minnehaha), she presents music inspired by Django and teams up with three different QHCDF-style bands: the Clearwater Hot Club, the Parisota Hot Club and Pearl Django. The music is vibrant and colorful and singer and instrumentalists revel in the free, open swing that admirably reflects the gypsy legend. Mostly the songs are standards, along with a couple of Django’s own compositions, Nuages and Anouman, the latter having a new lyric by Evingson herself.
In the UK, guitarist Martin Taylor, who worked with Stéphane Grappelli in the 1970s, formed Spirit of Django in 1994 and became very popular with a Jazz Album Chart No 1 as well as poll success in the USA. Recently, marking the centenary of Django’s birth, Martin reformed the group with Alan Barnes and released Last Train to Hauteville (The Guitar Label). The group also appeared in concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, proof, if needed, that the music and the spirit of Django Reinhardt remain as powerful as ever, despite all the musical and cultural changes that have taken place in the past half century.
Listening to Django Reinhardt’s music today, all these years after his death in Fontainebleau, France, on 16 May 1953, it is still vividly apparent why he was such an important influence on the development of jazz guitar music. His distinctive, flowing lines are filled with inventive ideas and although often overflowing with deeply romantic melodies are always intensely rhythmic. His compositions are many and include Manoir De Mes Rêves, Djangology, Anouman, Nuits De Saint-Germaine-Des-Pres and Nuages, the latter a gorgeously dreamy ballad.
Django himself can be heard on many reissues, among them Django D’Or (Gazell), Anthologie (Cristal) and The Best of the Radio Sessions (Fuel), while an unusual CD, and one perhaps best-suited to serious followers, especially those who play the guitar, is Complete Solo Guitar And Duet Recordings (Essential Jazz Classics). For the general listener, though, eager to hear a lot from this master jazz guitarist at work, extensive and attractive multiple-CD boxed sets abound, including Postwar Recordings 1944-1954 (JSP), Djangology (Red/Membran) and Swing de Paris (Properbox).
July 23, 2012
DIVA is not unique in jazz today, but it is certainly unusual and, more importantly, it is also strikingly good. A big band that has been around now for a dozen years, it was good to start with and it is even better now. The leader of DIVA is drummer Sherrie Maricle who has been there from the start, although the personnel has undergone some changes over the years. Whatever the names on the masthead, though, it has always been first class with no weak links and several outstanding soloists. Consider a release from 2005, TNT – A Tommy Newsom Tribute (Diva Jazz Lightyear) whereon very nearly everyone in the band gets a chance to solo. Although it might be invidious to select just a few for special mention, because all are so good, especially notable is the playing of Barbara Loronga, trumpet, Karolina Strassmeyer, alto saxophone, Lisa Parrott, baritone saxophone, Chihiro Yamanaka, piano, and Anat Cohen, on both tenor saxophone and clarinet. Special mention must be made of the arrangements; as the album title suggests these are by Tommy Newsom and they are ideal for this band, which in its ensemble playing shifts from fiery to mellow with fluid ease. This is top class big band jazz music played with panache and style and is very warmly recommended.
Two outstanding small groups drawn from the remarkable musicians gathered together as DIVA under Sherrie Maricle can be heard on other CDs led by the drummer. Five Play is a quintet with Jami Dauber, on trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn, Janelle Reichman, on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Tomoko Ohno, piano, and Noriko Ueda, bass. They can be heard excitingly on What The World Needs Now (Arbors). The DIVA Jazz Trio has Sherrie with Tomoko and Noriko and they appear on Never Never Land (Arbors). The music on both of these small group CDs is exceptional: sparkling solos, delightful ensemble playing, and throughout there is terrific swing, plain delight in performance, and altogether some of the best jazz around today. These are musicians of the highest caliber and anyone who enjoys superbly played, swinging post-bop mainstream jazz will delight in any or all of these albums.
Playing for a very appreciative audience at The Jazz Bakery, one of the leading jazz venues in Los Angeles, pianist Jan Lundgren, bassist Chuck Berghofer, and drummer Joe La Barbera, not only demonstrate their individual and collective talents but also put on show the composing skill of Hollywood legend Ralph Rainger. On Thanks For The Memory (Fresh Sound), they perform many of his classic pop songs, among them Easy Living, Please, If I Should Lose You, June In January and I Wished On The Moon. All of these songs are lovingly interpreted by the three instrumentalists and the true value of the melodic gift of the composer is apparent throughout. Most of Rainger’s songs were written in collaboration with lyricist Leo Robin and a measure of his contribution to their partnership can be heard when the wonderful Sue Raney steps up to sing two of their songs, If I Should Lose You and Thanks For The Memory.
The huge success of the 2008 release of Thanks For The Memory prompted the release a couple of years later of Together Again … At The Jazz Bakery (Fresh Sound). Once again, the trio concentrates on standards, exploring the delights of Have You Met Miss Jones?, Love For Sale, Tenderly, Yesterdays, Everything Happens to Me and I’ve Never Been In Love Before. There are also jazz standards, Oscar Pettiford’s Blues In The Closet and Thelonious Monk’s Rhythm-a-ning. There is not a weak moment in this wonderfully performed session; all three jazzmen play superb solos, filled with invention that vividly demonstrates their skills. As a group, throughout they show how in tune they are with one another as they lift the music to quite remarkable heights.
Produced by Dick Bank, these two CDs are essential listening not only for jazz fans, who will delight in the performances, but also for all those who love the music of this era. At the start of 2009, the earlier CD was a winner in the annual Critics Poll in Jazz Journal; it came as no surprise when the second CD also found favor, topping the magazine’s poll published early in 2012.
New World Jazz Composers Octet
Led by Boston-based saxophonist Daniel Ian Smith, the New World Jazz Composers Octet has established itself over the past few years as a leading voice in composing and playing contemporary jazz to a very high standard. On Breaking News (Big and Phat Jazz) the musicians in the band include trumpeters Ken Cervenka and Walter Platt, saxophonist Felipe Salles, pianist Tim Ray, bassist Keala Kaumeheiwa, drummer Mark Walker, and percussionist Ernesto Diaz. On this CD are compositions by Matthew Nicholl, Jeff Friedman and Richard Lowell as well as Walter Platt. Everything hereon is written and played with considerable intelligence and flair, from the thoroughly engaging solos to the tight and powerful ensembles, all of which come together to exhilarating effect. Especially appealing is the three-movement suite, Trilogy, composed by Ted Pease and paying tribute to pastmasters of jazz composition, Thad Jones, Billy Strayhorn and Bill Holman. The three movements are entitled, respectively, Thad’s Pad, Strays and Willis. The composer’s skill is evident from the manner in which he evokes the musical style of the dedicatees, finding punchy mainstream power in the first movement, romantically melodic charm in the second, and updated west coast bounce in the closer. This exceptionally attractive CD should appeal to all those who appreciate a contemporary twist on the important qualities of the past, qualities that the musicians Daniel Ian Smith has assembled clearly admire and respect.
For the past dozen years, jazz pianist Sumi Tonooka has devoted much of her time to teaching, both privately and at Rutgers and SUNY, and in the founding and development of a recording company, Artists Recording Collective, in collaboration with saxophonists Chris Burnett and Erica Lindsay. Then there has been her work as a composer, with special concentration on scores for film and television documentaries. Not surprising therefore that Sumi Tonooka’s presence on the bandstand has been rather less prominent than it was a few years ago. Fortunately for all lovers of jazz piano, Sumi has continued to make occasional records, of which her latest release is Now – Live at the Howland (Artists Recording Collective). This is a double-album that presents her live in an entire 2011 concert. On the first CD, Sumi plays music by jazz composers such as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Mary Lou Williams, the pieces including Heaven, Evidence, Waltz Boogie and Dirge Blues. There are also some popular standards, among them Cole Porter’s All Of You and Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old Fashioned. On the second CD, all the music (except an encore) is composed by Sumi and from this it is clear that her compositions stand comfortably alongside those of her famous forerunners. Included are Phantom Carousel, Mingus Mood, and At Home. The encore is a jaunty stroll through Eubie Blake’s I’m Confessin’, which wittily looks at piano music of a long-past generation through contemporary eyes. Indeed, that particular performance is an appropriate closer to an exceptional concert as throughout the two discs there flows a strong sense of the melodic undertow that has marked Sumi Tonooka’s work across the past two-and-a-half decades. This is music that is not only melodically captivating, but is also intelligent, warm, and a vivid portrayal of how she has embraced much of what has gone before in the history of jazz piano and is helping to keep it alive and flourishing.
July 17, 2012
Claire Martin Too Much In Love To Care (Linn AKD 390)
As Claire Martin’s many fans will know, on her recording sessions this exceptional singer usually steers clear of the Great American Songbook. This is not because she dislikes these songs; far from it, in fact and she sings them often, as those fortunate enough to hear her live will know. Here, Claire devotes a complete album to this kind of music and it is an absolute delight. It will come as no surprise to the aforementioned fans that Claire’s treatment is extraordinary; her burnished sound is allied here to an exquisitely tasteful touch in her interpretations. If all this were not enough, Claire is accompanied here by Kenny Barron, Peter Washington and Kenny Washington together with Steve Wilson all of whom play with their customary flair and grace. Last year, Claire teamed up with classical composer Richard Rodney Bennett in a thoroughly enjoyable set of songs composed by Cy Coleman. On Witchcraft (Linn AKD 359) the duo demonstrate some of the artful explorations into many aspects of popular song they have performed together for several years in London and New York (and beyond). This set is a vivid demonstration of how skilled musicians from whatever field can work together with superb results when hearts and minds are in the right place. Not a weak moment on this CD, which seems likely to be a joy forever.
Ian Shaw Drawn To All Things (Linn AKD 276)
Always seeking a different approach, Ian Shaw has chosen his material for this set from the work of an artist not usually associated with jazz. The subtitle, The Songs Of Joni Mitchell, tells us who that is and Ian’s admiration for this artist is vividly apparent in his fluent exploration of the singer-songwriter’s exceptional talent. Immensely enjoyable, this set contains many moments of sublime singing and it is clear with every song that this is a major singer at the very top of his game. Ian Shaw’s many fans will need no urging to buy this CD; if you are unfamiliar with his work or have yet to pay him the attention he deserves, will find this a delightful way to rectify this omission. If you happened to miss it, his earlier Soho Stories (Milestone MCD 9316 2) is another admirable and engagingly varied selection of songs recorded in New York City with Ian backed by seriously talented jazzmen, including Eric Alexander, Lew Soloff and Cedar Walton. Everywhere on these wholly admirable CDs the reason why Ian garners much acclaim from fans and fellow musicians is immediately apparent: Class tells.
Carol Sloane We’ll Meet Again (Arbors ARCD 19400)
On this 2009 release, Carol Sloane is joined by tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Peplowski, the pair being backed with great empathy by Bucky Piazzarelli and Steve LaSpina. The song selection draws upon familiar yet by no means overused items from Carol’s lovely repertoire. The quality of singing and instrumental playing is so high that it would be easy to fall into superlatives. And why not? After all, Carol Sloane is one of the very finest singers of the Great American Song Book active today and we should be grateful for sharing the same time and space. Of all the many jazz singers performing today, very few have the enormous talent that Carol displays in everything that she does. Anything that bears her name is an assurance of jazz singing at its very best. She is, in a word, superb. A 2007 release, Dearest Duke (Arbors ARCD 19350), is dedicated, of course, to Duke Ellington. Here, Carol’s partner is again Ken Peplowski. this time with Brad Hatfield. As is her clear preference, Carol has selected ballads, but there are a few tracks with the languid bounce that marked so many of Ellington’s compositions. Everything is performed with stylish elegance; the instrumental solos, the accompaniment, and Carol’s impeccable singing.
Marlene VerPlanck One Dream At A Time (Audiophile ACD 340)
Never less than very good indeed, Marlene VerPlanck’s albums are often breathtakingly excellent. Released early in 2011, One Dream At A Time is typical in that Marlene has selected her songs with admirable care, interspersing standards with overlooked gems from the past and original material presented here for the first time. Marlene’s accompanists include Tedd Firth and Steve LaSpina, Tomoko Ohno and Ed Vodicka. As for Marlene’s singing, her flawless sound, a bell-like freshness that has always marked her work, suggests a miracle. Indeed, a newcomer to Marlene VerPlanck’s work might well expect her to be a new kid on the block. The difference, though, lies in the assured maturity of her interpretations, which are as close to perfection as it gets. A little while ago, Marlene released Once There Was A Moon (Audiophile ACD 338) on which she was also accompanied by Tedd and Steve, this time with Richard DeRosa. Also present are the imaginative treatments Marlene’s late husband, Billy VerPlanck, brought to his concepts for the songs. And, as always, these songs are exceptionally well-chosen, if seldom-heard gems from some of the finest composers of American popular music.
Carol Kidd & Nigel Clark Tell Me Once Again (Linn AKD 377)
There has been a long enforced gap since Carol Kidd’s last recording and during that time her vocal sound has taken on a subtle maturity that sits very well indeed with her ability to reach the heart and soul of any song she sings. Her recent welcome return to the music scene has also brought another change; now, she works in duo with the fine guitarist, Nigel Clark. As Carol’s many fans will recall, during her concerts in the past she always offered a few moments when she sang with only guitar accompaniment and the delight this brought to audiences has now been built upon with enormous success. Carol’s repertoire here, as always, presents a comfortable mix of mainly standards with a few items of the best of contemporary pop. There is also an original, composed by Nigel to Carol’s lyric, Tell Me Once Again, and very good it is too. Carol’s lovely vocal sound has never been better and is superbly showcased by Nigel’s fluent guitar.