February 28, 2015
I have long taken an interest in jazz drumming, an interest that over the years has led me to write articles for magazines and on-line sites on several drummers. Among those featured on this site are Chick Webb, Dave Tough, Sonny Greer (see below), Zutty Singleton, and Gene Krupa. Also, in 1987, my book, Gene Krupa: His Life and Times, was published and although now out of print this is available to eager searchers among the second-hand stacks at Amazon. Regrettably, over the years it was only rarely that I became aware of women drummers in jazz. Among the first of the few who caught my ear were Pauline Braddy, whose playing with The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was outstanding, Dotty Dodgion, who played briefly with Benny Goodman and hence came to my attention when I was writing a book on the King of Swing, and Viola Smith, who had a long and varied career, was known as the “female Gene Krupa”, and is still alive and kicking at over 100. In recent years I have greatly admired the playing of Cindy Blackman, Terri Lyne Carrington and Sherrie Maricle, reviewing albums by the last named on this site and in Jazz Journal. These musicians and a few others apart, this was pretty much the sum of my knowledge. Not surprisingly, therefore, I was intrigued to see advance publicity for a book devoted entirely to female drummers and hoped to review it for JJ but another contributor beat me to it. So, I bought a copy from Amazon and what a delight it has been to read it.
Women Drummers: A History from Rock and Jazz to Blues and Country by Angela Smith (Rowman and Littlefield ISBN 978-0-8108-8834-0)
As Angela Smith’s subtitle makes clear, this work is not restricted to jazz; far from it in fact, but this wide-ranging scope is by no means an impediment to anyone with interest in any of the musical fields covered. It will also appeal to those interested specifically in the difficult role women have in the world of popular music, a role that while easier today than it was several decades ago, is still fraught with the all-too familiar prejudices of a male-dominated business.
Broadly, Smith takes a chronological approach, which means for the jazz fan the earlier and later chapters hold most obvious interest, but I think that anyone choosing to skip past the other genres will not only do the author a disservice but will also miss a great deal that is interesting and revelatory, which it certainly was for me. To a considerable extent, Smith has drawn upon interviews with drummers, some previously published in magazines and books but many personally conducted by herself. These direct sources bring to life the many struggles and occasional triumphs of these musicians and the resulting volume will provide a valuable future resource for music historians. They might also have the effect of sending readers scurrying off to find CDs (all too often deleted) of these women.
To digress for a moment: another long-ago book of mine (written with Mike Pinfold) was The Jazz Singers: from Ragtime to the New Wave (1986). Because no one before had tried to do what we did there, we covered a lot of ground, too much perhaps, and in a later book, Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles (1997), we narrowed the scope and hence were able to examine the subject in greater detail. To some extent, the ground covered in Angela Smith’s book is similarly encyclopedic and I find myself hoping that she might be considering another book on this topic in which she can narrow the scope and get right inside individual lives and careers and in particular examine and explain stylistic differences, something that will be especially interesting when comparing and contrasting drummers from different genres. If the author does take another look at the subject, I’ll certainly buy that book as well. In the meantime, Women Drummers is an admirable work, one that is an important reference book and is also worthy of a place on the shelf of anyone interested in this fascinating corner of the world of music that hitherto has been only rarely, if ever, illuminated.
Angela Smith’s book can be bought from walk-in and on-line stores, which includes Amazon.
Sonny Greer – the Duke’s man
Maybe it’s just me and my occasional mistaken perceptions, but when reading about the glories of the Duke Ellington orchestras, and especially those he led from the late 1920s through to the end of the 1940s, I am struck by a notable omission. Although jazz historians and critics pay well-deserved attention to many of the fine instrumentalists, among them Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams and Ben Webster, and also arranger Billy Strayhorn, there are far fewer words written about the long-serving drummer Sonny Greer. If I am right in regarding him as a forgotten man, it prompts the question: Why?
Photographs of the band show him as a prominent and flamboyant figure, sitting high up on the bandstand surrounded not only by the regular drums and cymbals that every big band drummer had, but also with a spectacular array of other percussion instruments, including gleaming bells, gongs, timpani and xylophone. For all the quantity of instruments, however, Greer’s aural contribution was muted; he never thundered, preferring to add color to the Ellington band’s sound and to supply a pulse that was felt rather than heard. He was not a soloist, as were so many other musicians in the band, and while seeing him live at dance-halls was doubtless memorable, sometimes on record he was barely audible. Only an assumption, I know, but I somehow doubt that this was the fault of the recording engineers. Listening to the Ellington band on albums such as the outstanding At Fargo, 1940 Live or The Blanton-Webster Band, it quickly becomes apparent that while every man in the band was individually swinging, Greer was largely responsible for creating and maintaining the relentless sense of understated propulsion the band brought to its performances.
So, who was Sonny Greer? He was born William Alexander Greer on 13 December 1895 (the year is sometimes questioned), in Long Branch, New Jersey. He played locally for a few years but by 1919 he had moved to Washington, DC, where he met Duke Ellington, the two men playing together in both Washington and New York City. As Ellington settled into his role as bandleader, so the drummer became an integral part of the music being created. Stylistically, Greer was subtle and relaxed, the latter quality sometimes, it must be said, leading to an unfortunately casual attitude toward keeping time. Most often, though, his style, especially when using brushes, was ideally suited to the band’s seemingly effortless swing and he contributed much to the tonal palette that Ellington needed in order to realize his compositions. Fortunately, any timekeeping lapses were underpinned in the earliest years by guitarist Freddie Guy (another invaluable and largely unsung figure) and a little later on by the extraordinary bassist Jimmy Blanton but the drummer played his own part in generating the easy, loping swing that made the band so distinctive.
Only rarely during the 1930s and 1940s did Sonny Greer work outside the aegis of Ellington. Apart from a few small group sessions led by other Ellingtonians, and an appearance on one of Lionel Hampton’s famous Victor recording sessions, on which he was again in Ellingtonian company, his early career was spent inside the Ellington orchestra. By the end of the 1940s, however, Greer had outstayed the welcome of even Ellington, who tolerated more indiscretions from his sidemen than almost any of his fellow bandleaders of the era. Greer never shook off the smooth-talking, sharp-dressing, hard-drinking persona that had been a part of him from the beginning when he had often kept himself in funds by moonlighting as a pool hustler. Most of that persona was not detrimental to his playing, but the drinking was. Gradually, his on-stage behavior deteriorated and in 1951 Ellington was forced to ask him to leave the band.
Thereafter, Greer freelanced, recording with other ex-Ellingtonians such as Johnny Hodges and Tyree Glenn and also with contemporaries like Henry ‛Red’ Allen and J.C. Higginbotham. In the late 1960s and 1970s Greer led his own groups, usually a trio, and he also appeared at concerts celebrating Ellington where he consistently proved that he was never more at ease than when playing his old boss’s music. Despite the lifestyle he chose, he lived a long life, eventually dying in New York City on 23 March 1982.
For all his perceived failings as a drummer, in retrospect it is apparent that Greer was just right for Ellington for the era in which he occupied the drum chair. As the years passed other fine drummers came into Ellington’s band, notably Louie Bellson and Sam Woodyard. The former of these musicians, while an exceptional player, was the least Ellingtonian of all the drummers who played in the band. Woodyard was ideal for later Ellington, bringing to the band elements of Greer’s subtlety and Bellson’s dramatic power. But for the early Ellington bands, especially those that played during the late 1930s and early 1940s, it is clear that Sonny Greer was the perfect drummer. With anyone else, the band would not have sounded the same and if it had not sounded the same then it would not have been what it was – the greatest jazz orchestra of its time.
February 10, 2015
Dale Bruning Thanks For The Memory . . . Jim Hall (Jazz Link Enterprises JLECD 1214)
This wonderfully melodic double album was recorded live at Dazzle Jazz Club in Denver over two evenings in September 2014. These concerts brought together guitarists Dale Bruning and Bill Frisell, long ago teacher and pupil, to pay tribute to their mutual friend and fellow guitar master, Jim Hall, who died in December 2013. Drawing music from the Great American Songbook as well as some well-known pieces from Spain and Brazil and Jim Hall’s own pen, Dale and Bill are supremely lyrical and inventive as they expand upon lovely melodies. The other four members of Dale’s sextet on this occasion are Ron Miles (cornet), Mark Patterson (trombone), Mark Simon (bass) and Paul Romaine (drums). All these musicians play with admirable skill and ingenuity, their solos displaying empathy with the composers of the music, the arranger (Dale), and – not at all surprisingly for musicians of this caliber – with one another. The repertoire presented here includes Cole Porter’s You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s My Funny Valentine andWith A Song in My Heart, Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas, a gorgeous Body And Soul; a long and always engaging performance of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto; two very different versions of Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s Thanks For The Memory, one by the sextet, the other by only cornet and trombone backed by Dale’s guitar; and three Jim Hall originals, All Across The City, Careful and Big Blues. These two CDs are filled with musical delights that will bring pleasure to those who love music from the melodic mainstream of jazz and especially to jazz guitar enthusiasts who will aspire to and admire the skill of these masters of their art.
There is much more of Dale Bruning’s music reviewed elsewhere on this site; take a look at Jazz Guitar – Music & Words in October 2012 and Jazz CD Reviews in October 2013. More information, including booking details, can be seen at Jazz Link Enterprises, which is also where this CD can be bought. There is also an article on Dale Bruning in the August 2014 issue of Jazz Journal.
Judi Silvano My Dance (JSL Records 010)
Here, Judi Silvano sings a collection of songs that are all her own compositions, with her lyrics on four of them, on which she is accompanied by the always engaging pianist Michael Abene. On two previous CDs by Judi I have heard and reviewed, she worked with small groups (one of them including Michael) while on another she was in a duo with pianist Mal Waldron (Riding A Zephyr on Soul Note). Remarking on that album, I wrote: ‛The result is a rewarding, often intense, musical experience; one that will be especially valued by those with an ear for new departures in jazz that expand and enhance the repertoire.’ The last part of this remark stemmed from the fact that on that occasion the songs were all compositions by Waldron with lyrics by Judi. This new set bears some resemblances because here Judy is again accompanied by only a pianist, while again the songs are all originals. The resulting set is an always intriguing demonstration of the mutual understanding that can develop between musicians when thinking alike and playing with close attention to one another’s musical needs. As Judi says, ‛It’s a duo project of deep collaborations and intimate moments interpreting my melodies and stories.’ Some of the songs have been in Judi’s and Michael’s repertoire for a while and are performed with new lyrics while others are new for this album. On several of the tracks, Judi presents scat vocals that suit the overall mood. All those who have a liking for contemporary jazz and improvised music will find much here that is to their liking.
Roger Davidson & Pablo Aslan Live At Caffè Vivaldi (Soundbrush SR4001)
Playing mostly his own always lyrical compositions, pianist Roger Davidson finds an ideal collaborator in Argentine bass player Pablo Aslan. Roger’s delicately shaded touch is the perfect way to present his often graceful music that is always absorbing. The secure underpinning of Pablo’s bass also helps maintain the lightly swinging atmosphere that cloaks this live session. Pablo’s love for his country’s musical tradition can be heard on his album, Buenos Aires Tango Standards (Zoho). Here, apart from Roger’s work, there are three tracks by other composers: Irving Berlin’s How Deep Is The Ocean, Angel Villoldo’s El Choclo, and an especially lovely interpretation of Stelvio Cipriani’s Anónimo Veneziano. This said, the greater part of the music is Roger Davidson’s and he is as interesting in his role as composer as he is when performing. Throughout, he demonstrates his complete command of the jazz and Latin idioms that are only a small part of his musical interests and ability, which ranges through chamber music and symphonic works to encompass aspects of popular music, the last named being especially apparent in his love for the music of Brazil. Altogether, this concert is a delight and will appeal to all those who admire jazz piano to which Roger and Pablo apply touches of South American warmth and romance.
Keri Johnsrud This Side Of Morning (KJ Music KJ 0029)
For this, her latest album, Keri Johnsrud introduces another facet of her talent, that of songwriter. Where her début set, All Blue, was mainly standards plus some lesser-known items from the past, here she sings ten songs written by herself in collaboration with pianist Kevin Bales, whose accompaniment here smoothly enfolds Keri’s youthfully fresh and warm vocal sound. As might be expected, her interpretations are filled with profound understanding of the lyrics. Highly musical, Keri studied piano and trumpet and has worked extensively in vocal groups of all sizes up to and including choirs, in various parts of the USA and also in Europe. As a solo singer, Keri has worked nightspots in her home state of Iowa as well as in Atlanta, Chicago, where she is now based, and New York, and is now becoming much more widely known. Also heard on this album are Larry Kohut, bass, Jon Deitemyer, drums, as well as guitarist Neal Alger and vibraphonist Stephen Lynerd. Keri’s is an enjoyable voice on today’s jazz scene, and this new album, which is due for release on 7 April 2015, will be admired by many.
Uptown Jazz Vocal Quartet Vocal Madness (HouseKat unnumbered)
Starting out in Washington, DC, the Uptown Jazz Vocal Quartet is an exceptional vocal group. Add to this, alto saxophonist Richie Cole, a great admirer of the UJVQ, and the stage is set for a hugely entertaining hour of music making. The group’s members are Ginny Carr, Robert McBride, Holly Shockey and André Enceneat, while other instrumentalists heard include pianist Alan Blackman, guitarist Steve Herberman, bassist Max Murray, and drummer Frank Russo. Richie’s recognition of the quartet’s qualities was based upon his experience of working extensively with The Manhattan Transfer (he was on three of their Grammy-winning albums) and it is most assuredly not misplaced. Apart from the vocal skills of the quartet, the saxophonist was also attuned to the arranging and songwriting talent of lead singer Ginny Carr. Among the twelve songs on this release are heard five originals by Richie, arranged by Ginny, and four of Ginny’s own compositions. The flawless harmonizing of the singers, along with some vocal solo moments, blend well with the alto saxophonist’s outstanding solos. All this front-line music-making is admirably underpinned by the rhythm section and there are also well-taken guest appearances by Chris Walker, trumpet, Jen Krupa, trombone, Chris Vadala, alto saxophone, and Leigh Pilzer, tenor saxophone. This fine set is a swinging assurance that this kind of jazz singing is in good hands. The album is dedicated to ManTran founder Tim Hauser who died recently; not only is this appropriate, he would surely have approved.