September 30, 2012
One of the outstanding big bands of the 1970s, Bill Berry’s LA Band was rich in talented soloists, powerful in execution, and dedicated in its approach. Sadly, it was barely recorded although many off-air and private recordings exist and I count myself lucky in having several of these. Officially, only two albums were released, the almost impossible to find vinyl, Hot & Happy (Beez 1), and Hello Rev (Concord Jazz CJ CCD 4023) and the former on Bill’s own label. (One all-too brief track on an Ernestine Anderson CD doesn’t really count.) The CD incarnation of Hello Rev is therefore a ‘must have’ for all lovers of big band jazz at its fiery best. Soloists include Blue Mitchell, Cat Anderson, Jack Sheldon, Jimmy Cleveland, Tricky Lofton, Richie Kamuca, Marshal Royal and Dave Frishberg. Throughout his work, leading big and small bands, playing jazz cornet, composing and arranging, Bill Berry lived and breathed the music of Duke Ellington. This stemmed from a spell in the early 1960s when he was a member of the Ellington band. When he joined the Ellington band, Bill quickly discovered that much of the magic did not come from notes on paper. Seated in the trumpet section, he looked in vain for his part, finding only a tattered scrap of paper with a few notes scribbled on it. ‘What do I do?’ he asked Cat Anderson. ‘Grab a note and hold on,’ he was told. At the end of the number, Cat leaned over and growled, ‘That was my note.’ Years later, that scrap of paper, carefully framed, hung proudly on the wall of Bill’s study at his North Hollywood home.
Bill’s spell with Ellington coincided with the darkest days of the Civil Rights movement, and sometimes there were problems. Later, Bill would recalls that when touring some parts of the Deep South, as the only white member of the band, he was sent into diners to buy two dozen hamburgers to go, the rest of the band remaining cautiously in the bus. But bad as they sometimes were, the difficulties were outweighed by the musical experience – something that changed his life forever, all for the good, and which he never failed to credit.
Hearing Bill Berry’s big band albums almost matches the awesome experience of encountering the band live. I had this privilege just once, at Carmelo’s, a Los Angeles jazz club. That night, in the late 1970s, the band included Sheldon, Cleveland, and Frishberg, as well as Pete and Conte Candoli, Bob Efford, Jack Nimitz, Monty Budwig, and Frank Capp among a truly star-studded personnel. If only more of my memories were made of mouth-watering evenings like this.
Bill Berry also led small groups and they have fared a little better in the CD age. Of these Shortcake (Concord Jazz CJ CCD 4075) also abounds in distinguished soloists, including Marshal Royal, Lew Tabackin, Bill Watrous and Dave Frishberg; additionally it is marked by ingenious and witty charts.
In the 1990s, Bill Berry and his wife, Betty, organized the Pacific Jazz Party, a richly rewarding trans-oceanic collaboration between musicians from America and Japan. The fine mainstream set, Jazz Party (Jazz Cook JCCD 1003) is one result of this meeting of musical minds. Cornetist Bill co-leads with his counterpart, clarinetist Eiji Kitamura, and they are joined by tenor saxophonist Sam Sadigursky and a pulsating rhythm section that draws from both countries: pianist Kotaro Tsukahara and the veteran bass and drums team of Ray Brown and Jake Hanna. Then there is Live at Capozzoli’s (Woofy WPCD 54), recorded during a late 1990s Las Vegas club date. The uncommon front line of Bill’s cornet and Jack Nimitz’s baritone saxophone lend interesting textures to a nice selection of numbers, most of which are standards.
A passing thought: although Bill had played trumpet in his early years, for most of his career, he played cornet, preferring the slightly mellower sound and the freedom the instrument gave him to execute fast boppish phrasing. Towards the end of his career, Bill played a Japanese-made instrument that was reshaped to look decidedly un-cornet-like. This confused some; on one occasion an emcee ended an evening by referring to the instrument as a flügelhorn. Bill was too polite to correct this misapprehension. Neither did he trouble interviewers with technical reasons for his choice. When asked by the BBC’s Peter Clayton why he played cornet and not trumpet, Bill answered: ‘As you can see, I am of a somewhat diminutive stature and my arms are too short for a trumpet’ .
Apart from hearing Bill with his own big band during that particular trip to California, I also heard him in the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut and an all-star outfit fronted by Bob Crosby as well as various small groups. Also memorable was his appearance in small and large groups at 1988’s Duke Ellington Conference. And I was happily able to make a few phone calls that helped smooth the way for Bill’s appearance in a playing and acting role in an Alan Plater television drama on British television. In this, he was cast as an American jazzman visiting the UK, but, completely against type, his character was decidedly ill-tempered.
Bill Berry’s death, in November 2002, brought to an end a personal friendship that existed between us for about a quarter-century. I miss Bill, but count myself lucky to have known him and to have heard him play live on many occasions in London and Los Angeles and points in between, including that never-to-be-forgotten night with his mighty big band.
Important in keeping alive memories of this fine jazz musician are the records, all of which exemplify something Bill once observed:
“You can be 100% serious about music, and still have fun.”
September 19, 2012
A jazz musician of extraordinary ability, Don Ellis was many things: a superb trumpet soloist, a gifted composer, an outstanding bandleader; but perhaps most important of all, he was a master of intricate time signatures. It is this last quality that most readily explains why his music, much of it recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, has not aged in the slightest. All of it is as engagingly vibrant as it was on the day it was first played. His big band music is breathtakingly exciting, and always brilliantly performed. The music Don Ellis wrote and arranged for his band consistently demonstrates how far out of his time he truly was. He still is; but this is not to suggest that there is anything too far out of reach, although it might well have seemed that way to some of his listeners three decades ago.
Consider just three of Don Ellis’s many albums; all of them by his big band, which is the way I first heard this masterful musician: Electric Bath (Columbia), Autumn (Columbia) and ‘Live’ at Monterey (Pacific Jazz). Throughout, the band scorches through startling charts, in time signatures as unexpected as 7/4 (Pussy Wiggle Stomp), 17/4 (New Horizons), and 19/4 (33 222 1 222), and swings like mad in all of them. Astonishingly, Don’s music places no severely limiting intellectual demands on the listener; it is all instantly understandable and wholly captivating. And always, there is plenty to stimulate the mind.
For example, the marvelous 20-minute Variations For Trumpet takes the listener through six sections and time signatures of 5/4, 9/4, 7/4 and 32/8. Written down like that, it might seem intimidating, yet it is not in the least difficult to appreciate. In every moment, there is a sense of wonder and joy; section work and solos that bring delight, even laughter, in response to their audacity.
Don Ellis is the star of the show on all of these three CDs, with his writing and hot trumpet playing, complete with experimental use of a ring modulator and a specially made ¼-tone trumpet, and his occasional helping hand on a third drum kit (two drummers and three bass players were the norm). But he never hogs the limelight and there are other notable instrumental soloists: among the brass are Glenn Stuart, Bob Harmon, Glenn Ferris, the saxophonists include Ira Schulman, Sam Falzone and Frank Strozier, while the drummers who keep the exhilaration high include Ralph Humphrey and Steve Bohannon.
Not many bands have taken up the challenges set by Don Ellis during his short lifetime, but reissues such as these present his fans with wonderful opportunities to hear some of the most extraordinary, and some of the best, big band music that has ever been recorded.
Although these thoughts have centered upon his big band material, Don Ellis was by no means restricted to this format. Indeed, hearing his playing with small groups, such as on Haiku, the subtle depths of his work is perhaps more readily apparent, the music delightfully patterned with delicate light and shade.
Don Ellis died in 1978 at the age of 44, but his music and his influence and importance live on, something that is strikingly apparent from John Vizzusi’s Electric Heart (Sight & Sounds Films), a video documentary that traces the career of this notable musician. This video is an excellent way in which to learn much about Don Ellis. In this film, Don Ellis’s musical talent is set out, along with clear statements of the respect and admiration others felt for this remarkable man.
Towards the end of the film, one of the few bands that have taken up the challenge of Don Ellis’s music puts in a lively appearance. This is a tribute band that includes in its ranks Sam Falzone and Ralph Humphrey. Through this video it is even more apparent today than it was 30-something years ago, that Don Ellis was timeless. The video is available from the makers at http://www.donellisfilm.com/ and is a must for all who love big band jazz and especially those who have a special place in their hearts for Don Ellis, a true Lord of Time.
And speaking of tribute performances, a Don Ellis reunion band is among the mouthwatering cast assembled by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute for Groovin’ Hard, their 2012 big band spectacular. Among other reunion bands are those featuring the musical legacies of Louie Bellson, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Buddy Rich. If you are lucky enough to be in the neighborhood of the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel on West Century Blvd between 10 October and 14 October 2012 you can find details at: http://lajazzinstitute.org/
September 9, 2012
Hollywood homicide detective, Toshiko Tanaka, investigates the sadistic killing of a bit-part player in old-time movies. Her father, a former coroner, spots similarities with a series of killings at Rialto Pictures a half century ago.
Harry Kenning, who retired from making Western movies fifty years ago, returns to Hollywood to see his estranged daughter. Along with his old movie sidekick, Billy Ross, he visits some of the people they knew at Rialto.
As more murders happen, Harry’s path intersects with that of Toshiko and teaming up in an unlikely partnership, they try to solve today’s murders.
Unexpectedly, Toshiko and Harry learn that the long-ago murder investigation was flawed and discover the unpleasant truth about what really happened at Rialto Pictures back in the 1950s.
. . . . . . . . .
In this novel, the lives and deaths of movie actors are exposed as dark secrets from the past emerge to haunt survivors of the years when Hollywood was suffering enforced changes. Old wounds are opened by these Dark Echoes as old scores are settled in violence.
ISBN – 13:978-1478213086 & 10:1478213086
September 1, 2012
Marshall Gilkes Sound Stories (Alternate Side ASR 005)
An exceptionally attractive CD featuring jazz trombonist Marshall Gilkes and jazz tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin in a selection of the former’s compositions. Backed by pianist Adam Birnbaum, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Eric Doob, the two horn players ably display their fluent talent on thoughtful ballads and hard swinging yet still lyrical pieces. Although resident in New York for more than a decade, Gilkes decided to move to Germany where he joined the WDR Big Band, an organization very well known to jazz record collectors internationally. Performing at venues around the world, and teaching at leading music institutions wherever he travels, Gilkes has built an excellent reputation and the music on Sound Stories confirms that this acclaim is entirely justified. Matching Gilkes is McCaslin, whose reputation is similarly international and equally justifiable. These are very fine jazz musicians with a lot to say and the skill to say it with great flair.
Pete Zimmer Prime Of Life (Tippin’ TIP 1108)
This album from jazz drummer Pete Zimmer vividly demonstrates why he is so highly regarded. His playing is light, subtle and always swinging; and with Peter Bernstein, guitar, and Peter Slavov, bass, he builds a flowing, rhythmic undertow that takes the music along with enviable energy. The fourth member of this quartet is master jazz tenor saxophonist George Garzone whose wit and invention are apparent at every turn. The music here is all from the pens of Zimmer (six titles) and Garzone (three titles); and all are melodically attractive and spacious, allowing opportunities for solos, mainly from Garzone and Bernstein, that are fiery and inventive. Previous albums by Zimmer include Common Man (Tippin’ TIP 1101), Burnin’ Live At The Jazz Standard (Tippin’ TIP 1102), Judgment (Tippin’ TIP 1103) and Chillin’ Live @ Jazz Factory (Tippin’ TIP 1104). All of these are fine examples of contemporary jazz played by some of today’s best young jazz musicians.
Michael Treni Big Band Boy’s Night Out (Bell Productions)
This sleek set by Michael Treni’s 16-piece big band is his fourth since returning to jazz music after a long spell in the outside world. After studying trombone and music theory, Treni played with many leading jazz musicians but after being pipped at the post (by Curtis Fuller) for a job with Art Blakey, he decided to turn his attention to composing and arranging in the commercial music field. This was in the late 1980s and, together with innovative work in wireless technology this is how he has since spent much of his time since then. Fortunately, Treni never lost his love for jazz and for the past decade he has been writing for and playing with a big band that he has filled with an interesting mix of seasoned jazz and session veterans leavened with a some brightly shining newcomers. The music played here includes three Treni originals that sit comfortably alongside pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Something’s Coming, George Shearing, Lullaby Of Birdland and Billy Strayhorn, U.M.M.G.. There are also a couple of charts by Jerry Coker. Many good soloists can be heard, among them Jerry Bergonzi, Vincent Cutro, Frank Elmo, Charles Blenzig and, of course, Michael Treni. Good music, well played, and a treat for fans of contemporary big band music for whom, these days, there is never enough around.
The Mary Lou Williams Collective Zodiac Suite: Revisited (Mary Records M 104)
Dedicated from one fine jazz pianist to another, this exceptional CD vividly displays the remarkable legacy of Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) and at the same time makes clear that thanks to Geri Allen that legacy is in safe hands. Accompanied by bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, Geri Allen constantly brings to mind just how good and advanced was Zodiac Suite, a Mary Lou Williams composition from 1945. Allen treats this masterly work with respect yet never loses its inherent vitality. This music is timeless. In addition to the suite’s twelve movements, Allen also plays MLW’s Intermission and, with Andrew Cyrille replacing Billy Hart, adds Herbie Nichols’ The Bebop Waltz and Allen’s own composition, the appropriately titled Thank You Madam. This thoroughly absorbing CD is strongly recommended to all who love good jazz piano playing.
Ezra Weiss/Rob Scheps Our Path To This Moment (Roark)
A fine young pianist who has earned a substantial reputation in the New York area, Ezra Weiss is also an accomplished ASCAP award-winning composer. In his performances, Ez (which is how he likes to be known) offers a distinctive contemporary touch to familiar pieces and he is especially interesting when playing his own compositions. On Get Happy (Roark) is accompanied by, collectively, Kevin Louis, Andy Hunter, Andrae Murchison, Antonio Hart, Kelly Roberge, Corcoran Hall, Jason Brown, and Billy Hart, along with singers Heidi Krenn, Samantha Grabler, and Elif Caglar. Throughout, Ez is subtly supportive and powerful and imaginative in his solos. On The Shirley Horn Suite (Roark), with only Corcoran Holt, Steve Williams, and singer Shirley Nanette, Ez pays admiring tribute to one of the best and much-missed jazz artists of recent years. This is delightful music, much of it composed by Ez, all of it lovingly performed. With a new release, Ezra Weiss’s talent as composer and arranger is spotlighted.
On Our Path To This Moment (Roark) by The Rob Scheps Big Band, crisp ensemble playing is interspersed with solos, fiery or reflective as the mood demands, that are always interesting. Among the soloists are Robert Crowell, Scott Hall, Tom Hill, Paul Mazzio, Rob Scheps, David Valdez, and special guest Greg Gisbert. On a few of the tracks, Ez takes over the piano from Ramsey Embick, but it is his writing that form the means and the end of this fascinating example of one of today’s young masters.