Spike Robinson

August 30, 2012

Jazz tenor saxophonist Spike Robinson always played with relaxed and seemingly effortless skill, imbuing his playing with charm, wit and understanding, qualities that matched his off-stage manner. He loved engaging in conversation with fans, and, obviously, preferred talking music, in the course of which it quickly became apparent that he had encyclopedic knowledge of the classic pop repertoire. Like many (perhaps all) leading jazz instrumentalists, he knew the lyrics to all of the songs he played. Indeed, there were times when his improvisations were at least as moving as performances by singers who sang the words.

And if the subject of music should ever pall, mention of motorbikes would certainly liven things up.

Spike Robinson sketch

He was born Henry Berthold Robinson, on 16 January 1930 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While in his teens, he started out playing clarinet and alto saxophone but soon realized that making a living playing jazz was a tough row to hoe. In 1948, he joined the US Navy as a musician and at the start of the next decade found himself in the UK. This was a perfect time for a musician already versed in bop. London’s Club Eleven, Downbeat Club, and Studio 51 were hangouts for leading lights, among whom were Tommy Pollard and Victor Feldman. Spike was heard by Carlo Krahmer who recorded him for Esquire Records, sides that would later become much-treasured examples of this fine musician’s early flowering. Unfortunately, it couldn’t last and Spike was transferred out of the UK, somewhere along the way exchanging his saxophone for a motorbike. Eventually, he left the navy and tried the music scene again, this time in Chicago where things were just as tough; indeed, in some respects they were worse and he would later recall how discouraged he was as drugs made inroads into the jazz scene.

Determined to avoid that path, Spike decided to suspend all thoughts of a music career and taking advantage of the GI Bill Of Rights, he studied engineering. He then found a job in Colorado, which he held for most of the next three decades. Even so, he was not completely cut off from jazz.

Spike-Robonson-CD

Hep Records CD2098

After a while, he began playing again, this time tenor saxophone, in local clubs and a recent find has resulted in a CD recorded in Boulder around 1974.  In the early 1980s, Spike was urged to re-visit the UK and from 1984 he toured regularly and successfully. This prompted him to take early retirement and begin what he had always wanted, a full-time career in music. From hereon,  Spike toured clubs and festivals throughout the UK, Europe, and various parts of the USA. In 1989, he became a permanent resident in England where he was capably managed by Susan May, whom he later married. Although he never again took to the saddle, he did not lose his early love of motorbikes and he was especially delighted when a gig on the Isle of Man fell during the TT races; adding to the pleasure, he could see the course from his hotel window. 

Spike-Robinson-CD

Hep Records CD2056

Throughout these later years, Spike made a succession of superb albums, as leader and co-leader, appearing with leading jazz artists who included Louis Stewart, Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison, Al Cohn, Roy Williams, Elaine Delmar, Ellyn Rucker, Claude Tissendier, Scott Hamilton, and Ken Peplowski. Throughout these memorable albums, Spike explored the classic song books, and in some instances his earlier recordings were reissued, among them a 1981 date with Victor Feldman that paid tribute to songwriter Harry Warren to which new tracks were added.

Critical and public praise for Spike, who died on 29 October 2001 in Writtle, Essex, England, was universal. His bop beginnings allied with his love for the classic popular songs, had provided a solid foundation upon which he built his later career as a consummate ballad player who lovingly explored the endless archives of the Great American Song Book. His instantly identifiable rhapsodic, breathy style and the effortless loping swing he brought to everything he played helped make Spike Robinson one of the outstanding tenor saxophonists of his generation.

 

Spike Robinson
oil on canvas
Copyright©Bruce Crowther

 

Jazz CDs reviewed – late August 2012

August 27, 2012

Shirley Crabbe

On her debut release, Home (own label) Shirley Crabbe sparklingly demonstrates that she is a mature singer, with considerable talent. Shirley’s late arrival as a recording artists resulted from vocal problems eventually solved through surgery and it is a delight to hear her voice, which is full and rich and used with subtle flair and very good taste.  Shirley-Crabbe-CDSimilarly tasteful is her choice of songs on which she is accompanied by pianists Donald Vega and Jim West, bassist John Burr, and drummer Alvester Garrett, who make up the core trio. They are joined by guest soloists Brandon Lee, Dave Glasser, Matt Haviland and Houston Person, all of whom contribute significantly to the proceedings. That said, this CD is a showcase for an exceptionally gifted artist who must surely appeal to all who love good jazz singing and can now hear her for the first time.

Claire Dickson Scattin’ Doll (Naftule’s Dream NDR 102)

This remarkable young jazz singer has attracted much attention thanks in part to winning Down Beat magazine’s award as Best Jazz Vocalist (Junior High School Level). It is hard to believe that on this, her first CD, some tracks were recorded when Claire was aged 12, some at 13. Surely no one coming to this singer in a blindfold test would think she is so young – okay, so here and there are a few tiny touches that suggest her voice is not yet as strong as it will become, but throughout Claire displays startling maturity of purpose and understanding.  Claire-Dickson-CDHere, she takes her repertoire from the books of Parker, Ellington and Hampton, a few of the classic pop song composers, and performs everything with enormous confidence. Claire’s accompanying trio, Michael McLaughlin, Greg Loughman, and Eric Rosenthal, support her ably as do guest horns Gary Bohan, Dan Fox, and Glenn Dickson on three tracks, but this is a showcase for the singer who is, without question, someone to look out for, not just now but for the next several decades. Surely, this is the birth of a major jazz singing talent.

Andrea Wolper

Andrea Wolper has a fluid voice, which she uses in an attractive low-key style, drawing subtle nuances from lyrics, and shaping vocal lines into jazz performances. For some years she has worked regularly with guitarist Ron Affif and bassist Ken Filiano and the interplay of the three on The Small Hours (VarisOne Jazz) makes clear that this is neither singer with band, nor band with singer, but a co-operative trio of which every member is an equal part. The extent of Andrea’s musicianship is apparent from the fact that she is also responsible for the arrangements and these are exemplary. On 2011’s Parallel Lives (Jazzed Media), Andrea and Ken are in collaboration with guitarist Michael Howell, pianist Kris Davis, and electronic percussionist Michael TA Thompson. This group explores new possibilities in some standards, including a gorgeous Skylark, touches upon songs from more recent times, among them Joni Mitchell’s Song To A Seagull, and also provides three eloquent examples of Andrea’s gifts as a songwriter.  Tranceformation.cdClearly, this accomplished artist has much to offer those who delight in contemporary jazz singing, something that is underlined most effectively on TranceFormation In Concert (New Artists Records ), released October 2012.  On this album, recorded live in New York, Andrea and Ken team up with pianist Connie Crothers for a scintillating demonstration of the art of improvisation. Never becoming so abstract that the audience is left behind, they stretch the expected boundaries of the vocal-bass-piano trio line-up yet remain anchored to the soul of jazz. It is an exhilarating sonic image of where jazz (and jazz singing in particular) is located today and hints at the possible routes it might take tomorrow.

Deborah Pearl

For many years, Deborah Pearl was a friend of Benny Carter and with his encouragement developed her talent as both singer and songwriter. All these elements come together on the very good 2011 CD, Souvenir Of You (Evening Star), which is subtitled New Lyrics to Benny Carter Classics. Although this is a debut release, it is immediately clear that Deborah is highly accomplished as both singer and lyricist. The words she has written for several of the master jazzman’s compositions bring attractive concepts, reflecting both period and latterday elements.  Deborah-Pearl-CDSome of the compositions are instantly familiar, others perhaps less so but no less admirable for their melodic charm. On two tracks, Happy Feet (At The Savoy) and Anniversary Dance, the backing to Pearl’s vocal lines has been taken from a concert at Rutger’s by a big band fronted by Carter and featuring his inimitable alto saxophone. On these and all of Carter’s other compositions, which include Doozy, Johnny True, An Elegy In Blue, and Souvenir Of You, Deborah helps demonstrate how timeless is Carter’s music and how his admiration for others, such as Johnny Hodges, illuminated his work. With skilful accompaniment from pianist-arranger Lou Forestieri, bassists Chris Colangelo and Kenny Wild, and drummers Dave Karasony and Jimmy Branly, Deborah Pearl makes an impressive mark that should appeal to many.

 

Zutty Singleton

August 20, 2012

Drum Face

A master of the art of jazz drumming, Zutty Singleton played with a springy, joyous beat, usually displaying more flexibility than his often more stately contemporaries. Even Baby Dodds, generally regarded as the finest of New Orleans drummers, rarely played with Zutty’s sprightly grace.

Jazz drummer on stage

He was born Arthur James Singleton in Bunkie, Louisiana, on 14 May 1898. Zutty’s nickname was bestowed upon him while still a babe-in-arms, the name reflecting the happy countenance he retained throughout his life. Playing drums from a very early age, he worked professionally for the first time in his mid-teens. After military service during World War 1, he played drums with numerous bands in New Orleans, including those of Oscar ‘Papa’ Celestin, ‘Big Eye’ Louis Nelson and Luis Russell, before joining the educational hothouse that was Fate Marable’s riverboat band.

The riverboat experience spread Zutty’s reputation to St. Louis where he played in Charlie Creath’s band and married Charlie’s sister, pianist Marge Creath. In Chicago he drummed with headlining leaders such as Doc Cooke, Dave Peyton and Jimmie Noone, before teaming up with Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Among the most important jazz recordings ever made are his late 1920s sessions with Louis Armstrong’s Savoy Ballroom small band.

New York beckoned and there Zutty played with Carroll Dickerson’s top flight band and freelanced throughout the 1930s. He played on numerous recording sessions, including dates with Sidney Bechet, Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton. In the early 1940s, Zutty frequently led his own band, and also backed frontline artists, among whom were such disparate figures as bluesman T-Bone Walker and proto-bopper Charlie Parker. He worked on radio and in films, appearing on-screen in Stormy Weather (1943) and New Orleans (1946).

 

Stormy Weather poster

Unhappy that he was not invited to join the all-star band formed to back Armstrong in the mid-1940s, Zutty remained active, working with many jazzmen, including Eddie Condon, Joe Marsala and Wingy Manone.

Early in the 1950s, Zutty spent time in Europe in bands led by Mezz Mezzrow, Bill Coleman, Hot Lips Page and Lillian Armstrong. During the rest of the 1950s and on through the 1960s, Zutty worked mostly in New York, which is where he had made his home. Towards the end of the 1960s, he appeared in the remarkable French documentary film, L’Aventure Du Jazz (1969), playing unaccompanied drum solos. The soundtrack of this film was released on a double LP, but I think not yet on CD; similarly, I believe that the film has yet to become available on DVD.

Zutty’s playing career ended following a stroke in 1970 and he lived out his life in New York with Marge. Widely admired and regarded as a father figure to the city’s jazz community, he died there on 14 July 1975.

The buoyancy Zutty brought to his playing ensured that any session on which he played swung mightily. An early champion of wire brushes and a distinctive user of the sock cymbal, together with other ear-catching effects, placed him well ahead of his time as a jazz drummer. A wide-ranging compilation of Zutty’s recordings over the years can be heard on a two-volume set issued by Big Bill Bissonnette on his Jazz Crusade label. Zutty-cd

A gifted soloist, Zutty would sometimes follow the penchant of New Orleans drummers for starting a solo playing the melodic line of the number before creating rhythmic variations. A memorable example of his skill as a drum soloist is the unaccompanied Drum Face on a Mezzrow date in Paris in 1951 (released on a Jazz Legacy LP); other fine examples are heard on sessions recorded for Fat Cat’s Jazz, notably the LP, Zutty And The Clarinet Kings.  Zutty-and-Kings-cdThese records show him to be witty, inventive, always swinging, and offering much to be admired and emulated by later generations of jazz drummers.

 

 

 

 Been here . . .. . . and gone

Jazz CDs reviewed – mid-August 2012

August 15, 2012

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade

Throughout his long career, jazz pianist Ran Blake has always pushed the boundaries, especially as a soloist. Through his teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he has been since the late 1960s, Blake has gradually awakened many to his way of thinking about contemporary music. Alongside all of this, Blake has enjoyed highly successful working relationships with singers among whom is Dominique Eade, whose presence at NRC was partly prompted by her eagerness to work with Blake. Dominique has gained a comparable reputation to that of her mentor thanks to her similarly advanced approach to jazz. She has an engaging ability to prompt listeners to question established ways in which standards are sung and thus to discover, often to the listener’s surprise, thoroughly rewarding and hugely enjoyable variations on familiar themes.  Blake-Eade-CDOn this CD, Whirlpool (Jazz Project), Dominique and Ran demonstrate their love for good music as they explore previously hidden byways that are often barely hinted at in previous hearings of songs such as My Foolish Heart, Where Are You, The Thrill Is Gone and Dearly Beloved. Even a song from the end of the nineteenth century, After The Ball Is Over, is beautifully recreated; indeed, the duo succeed in turning it into a contemporary jazz classic.

Sandi Russell

For several years, Sandi Russell has successfully toured her one-woman show, Render Me My Song, a history of African American women writers in words and music. Her approach to jazz singing is inventive and engaging, finding songs little heard over the years, and delivering new and vibrant interpretations of familiar songs. These qualities are especially apparent on Sweet Thunder (33 Jazz) where she delivers the lyrical themes in the manner of a mature, worldly woman with ample experience of music and of life. She knows what to sing, how to sing the songs she chooses, and who to have by her side as she does it.  Sandi-Russell-CDThis maturity and confidence is reflected in Sandi’s vocal sound and she brings to her material musical and textual undercurrents that make her interpretations even more than the entertainment that they clearly are. Sandi is accompanied here by some fine jazz musicians; the core trio is pianist Dave Newton, bassist Andy Clyndert, and drummer Steve Brown, while the stellar guest list includes Jim Mullen, Phil Todd, Guy Barker, David Murray and Alan Skidmore. These performances, rich in musical knowledge and lyrical subtexts, are a joy to hear. Sandi is in similarly excellent form on Incandescent (Freedom Song), where her commanding presence is once again underscored by superb backing from Dave Newton, Andy Clyndert, and Steve Brown. The result is an impressive experience, solid repertoire that mixes of popular and jazz songs, with one or two lesser known but attractive items, instrumental playing of a very high order, and exceptional jazz singing.

Trudy Kerr

Long based in London, Australian-born jazz singer Trudy Kerr is an exceptionally talented artist. On My Old Flame (Jazzizit) she has conceived and beautifully executes a tribute to Chet Baker, which draws upon the arrangements of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Trudy and bass player Geoff Gascoyne have crafted intelligent, melodic and subtly swinging charts that recapture the grace of the originals while simultaneously making their own statements. Trudy’s singing voice, ringing and eloquent, is ideally suited to the atmosphere and she further displays her skills with the vocalese lyrics she has written for Bernie’s Tune and Look For The Silver Lining. Exemplary accompaniment comes from baritone saxophonist Derek Nash, pianists Phil Pesket and Steve Melling, and drummer Sebastiaan De Krom. Also on hand for two duets with Trudy is veteran singer Georgie Fame.  Trudy-Ingrid-CDRecently, Trudy has teamed up with an old friend from her Australian homeland, singer Ingrid James, and their work together can be heard on Reunion (Jazzizit). This is a fine selection of standards from the pop and jazz scenes and the two singers blend with subtle ease and considerable charm. Here again, Geoff Gascoyne is a key factor in supplying the framework for the graceful performances of the two singers.

René Marie

Only a very tiny percentage of today’s jazz singers measure up to the giants of the past; René Marie is one of this distinguished minority. She always displays her credentials with seemingly effortless flair and poise; it is an inescapable fact that she is an artist to savor and admire. Central to the recent release of Voice Of My Beautiful Country  (Motéma) Rene-Marie-CD is the similarly entitled suite, in which familiar songs central to American culture (and history and politics) are arranged by René Marie, sometimes moving far from the original melodies, into a telling whole. Pointed though the lyrics of some of her songs might be, they are always melodic and overflow with invention. Earlier CDs by René Marie include How Can I Keep From Singing?, Vertigo, and Live At Jazz Standard, (all MaxJazz), whereon she delivers a pleasing mix of standards with some of her own compositions. Her daring combining of Dixie and Strange Fruit on Vertigo borders on the miraculous. On the aptly titled Serene Renegade (MaxJazz), René gives full rein to her songwriting talent. All but two of the tracks are her original songs and very good they are too.

Most recently. this outstanding singer again presents an album mainly of her own compositions. This is Black Lace Freudian Slip (Motéma) on which she ranges from the blues through Latin tinge, hints of folk, and deep-seated jazz, all underpinned with echoes of today’s African music.  Rene-Marie-CDIn her lyrics, René Marie demonstrates her social commitment, her sense of humor and her unending joy in singing. Throughout all of her CDs, René Marie delivers striking lessons in the art of contemporary jazz singing that are thoroughly grounded in the best of the past.  If you happen to have missed René Marie before now, these CDs offer many opportunities to join her ever-widening international audience, an opportunity that should be seized without hesitation. If you should be fortunate enough to be able to see and hear her perform live, then don’t walk, but run . . .

Mark Masters

Drawing together some of the best of Now and the finest of Then, the latest album from Mark Masters sets out a selection of music that originated with members of the Duke Ellington organization. Although that last word implies a measure of rigidity, a quality never invoked by either the Maestro himself or the remarkable sidemen who graced his band. Here, on Ellington Saxophone Encounters (Capri), Mark has taken themes created by Ellington saxophonists Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Jimmy Hamilton, Johnny Hodges, and Ben Webster, and arranged them as a tribute to these exceptional instrumentalists. Mark’s band features contemporary saxophone masters Pete Christlieb, Gene Cipriano, Gary Foster, Don Shelton, and Gary Smulyan, the latter being Mark’s key collaborator in this (and indeed other) fascinating jazz ventures. The saxophonists play with inventive flair, breathing into music fresh life – although it has never really died and neither has it aged in the slightest despite the fact that among the pieces are some originally created before some of today’s musicians were born. The saxophonists are backed by the subtly supportive trio of pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Joe LaBarbera. Thanks to Capri Records and the American Jazz Institute, this album presents exceptional music that is played superbly. This melodic and always swinging set is a joy to hear.mark masters cd

Crime Fiction – Dead Man Running

August 14, 2012

 

Dead Man Running

by

Bruce Crowther

Phil Davis, a cop in a small Texas town, investigates a brutal triple homicide.

Jack Ryker, enforcer for a Texas crime boss, sees a report on the murders and believing the victims are his wife and young children resolves to hunt down and punish the killer.

Barbara Nichols, TV news reporter on the case, sees the murders as her ticket to the big time.

The lives of these three, Davis, Ryker and Nichols, intertwine as Phil Davis, more hindered than helped by a devious FBI agent, pursues the killer south through Texas.

Barbara risks her life as she draws uncomfortably close to Ryker who wreaks lethal havoc among his former criminal associates.

Phil Davis, enmeshed in political double-dealing, closes in on the killer, simultaneously trying to extricate Barbara from the life-threatening trap into which she has walked.

dead man running cover

. . . . . . . . .

My first crime novel in several years, Dead Man Running is a fast-paced tale sparked by vicious violence that must be avenged. Delving into the dark past of some of the principal characters, most of whom have secrets kept from even those closest to them, the tale reaches its unexpected end in violence.

ISBN – 13:978-1478143840  & 10:1478143843

Available in print or digitally. To buy this book, go On-line (including Amazon) or to Walk-in book stores (including Barnes & Noble), or ask . . .

The Colors Of Your Life

by

Bruce Crowther

A play about racial and sexual discrimination in the USA in the 1960s and the present day, seen through the dramatic lives and often terrifying experiences of its two characters, May and Shirley, who are grandmother and granddaughter.

An absorbing account of life for Black women in America, then and now.

With its simple set and lighting needs, the play can be presented on stage, in any non-theatrical location (a school or community center for example), or on film/video, or on radio.

The Colors Of Your Life can be performed with or without original songs written by Ed Anderson.

 

. . . . . . . . .

Although I wrote some plays for television a long time ago, many years passed before I decided to write a play for the stage. The result is The Colors Of Your Life, which was first staged in Denver in 2004 marking the 75th anniversary of the birth of Dr Martin Luther King. This play is now available in book form.

ISBN – 13:978-1478165491 & 10:1478165499

Available in print or digitally. To buy this book, go On-line (including Amazon) or to Walk-in book stores (including Barnes & Noble), or ask . . .


 

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