April 30, 2015
Allan Harris Black Bar Jukebox (Love Productions 233921)
Over the past few years, Allan Harris has built a reputation as a gifted and versatile singer. He has chosen to explore varied paths during his career, and has recorded tributes to Billy Strayhorn and Nat King Cole. Displaying an attractive approach to the classics of popular music, Allan also sings less familiar material and among examples of this heard here are Kenny Rankin’s Catfish and Haven’t We Met, and the Eddie Jefferson-James Moody jazz classic I’ve Got The Blues, based on Lester Leaps In. There are also fine versions of Daughters and Stranger On The Shore. The former is a composition by John Meyer and is especially attractive, a comment that might also be made about Acker Bilk’s wonderfully melodic instrumental hit for which a lyric was written by Robert Mellin. Although Andy Williams had a hit with this song back in the early 1960s, vocal versions are rare and it is nice to have it here. In addition to his singing gifts, Allan is also talented songwriter and there are four examples here: Miami, A Little Bit Scared, Love’s The Key and Can It Be This Is A Dream. Allan’s vocal sound is a rich baritone that he can lift into the tenor range and he presents his music with eloquent charm. Here, he is supported by pianist-organist Pascal Le Boeuf, guitarist Yotam Silberstein, bassist Leon Boykins, drummer Jake Goldbas and percussionist Samuel Torres. Altogether, this is a musical delight.
José James Yesterday I Had The Blues (Capitol/Blue Note 0000)
It is not only female singers who admire and learn from Billie Holiday, male singers do it, too, and here José James pays his tribute. Drawing upon the milestones of Holiday’s career, he presents the songs in his own way, thus allowing listeners to choose whether or not to evoke memories of that past troubled giant of song. On previous albums and live dates, José has appealed to a wide audience that encompasses lovers of contemporary R&B and soul and smooth jazz. The song choice here is from the core of jazz, but in his stylistic presentation he stays true to what he does best. José’s treatment of Good Morning, Heartache is surprisingly lively and he is energetically backed by pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland, who provide discreet yet telling support although they have their moments on the driving What A Little Moonlight Can Do. There is one song where the presentation is very different. This is Strange Fruit, a tragic lament only rarely performed by other singers. It was, of course, very different from everything else in Holiday’s repertoire, yet it is for many the song that marks how she is remembered today (in many ways this is regrettable, overshadowing as it does her often joyful take on music and life). For this performance, the instrumentalists lay out, leaving José to sing backed only by vocal humming. The growing numbers of fans of José James will like this a lot and it might well draw in those from the jazz core who have been waiting on the sidelines.
Tony Adamo And The New York Crew (Urbanzone Records)
Confronted with reviewing an album by Tony Adamo, it’s tempting to write in the style of Ken Kesey or early Tom Wolfe, but I know I can’t do that so I won’t try. This leaves me with the uneasy feeling that I won’t do this remarkable wordsmith justice, and that would be a shame. Tony is a storyteller, a teller of tales. He doesn’t sing his songs – he delivers his stories in what he describes as ‛HipSpokenWord’. These stories are set in the hip urban scene, mainly of New York, both now and then. The ‛then’ being pretty much any time you like through those decades when writers like Jack Kerouac and stand-ups like Lenny Bruce roamed the highways and alleys of America. Except, of course, there never really were people quite like Jack or Lenny no matter how many latterday hopefuls since their day might like to claim an imaginary inherited mantel. And neither is there anyone quite like Tony Adamo. Customarily when writing about jazz musicians, I avoid comparing them to other artists. Digressing for a moment: I know that some reviewers do this but I’m not at all sure that they do a musician service to say that someone is, or sounds like, another musician. Intended or not, there is a built-in implication that the performer under review is less than, if not a copyist of, a past artist. The problem is, how do I describe what he does without comparisons? And if I do try, who is there that would allow a comparison such as this to be made? I suppose I might risk suggesting Lord Buckley whose spoken work carried an implied and sometimes real rhythmic undertow. That said, in Tony Adamo’s case, the swing is on top and he blends fluidly with the musicians who surround him here. And they really are special. Teaming up here to work with Tony are The New York Crew, a group of musicians that might well be termed All Star: trumpeter Tim Ouimette, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, pianist Michael Wolff, bassist Richie Goods, drummers Lenny White and Mike Clark, sharing duties, as well as spots for guitarist Jean C. Santalis and percussionist Bill Summers. All those interested in contemporary R&B and frontline post-bop jazz will recognize these names. For example, Tim played with and arranged for Ray Charles, Donald with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and his own Electric Band, Lenny with Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, and Mike with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Most of those on hand had multiple roles as either engineers or producers or co-composers with Tony being the man behind the words. Let’s be clear about these words; they tell a story with wit and intelligence, using everyday language that has at times the dartlike precision of yesteryear’s writers of popular song lyrics. (Which is my way of trying to say, politely, that it is several steps up from the quasi-ghetto-speak used in rap and even on today’s television dramas – both real and fictitious.) I have just re-read the foregoing and I am bound to admit that I have failed to describe Tony Adamo’s work in a manner that it deserves. So I’ll have to do what I hoped I could avoid and simply urge you to buy this album.
And speaking of which, all the albums here can be found at Amazon.
April 22, 2015
Way back in the 1980s, together with Mike Pinfold I worked on a book about big band jazz. Not surprisingly, most of the bands we wrote about in The Big Band Years were from the past, especially those that were active in the 1930s and early 1940s. But we did touch upon more recent bands, because, contrary to frequent predictions and declarations, the big band years were not yet dead. And today, many years after our book was published in 1988, big bands are still alive and swinging although they are very different from the bands of the past. Many of these newer bands are brought together because composers and arrangers want to hear their work and the sidemen, many now working in studios (and some forced into “day jobs”) enjoy the opportunity to play this kind of music just for the love of it. Rehearsal bands were touched upon in our (sadly out-of-print) book and it is good to know that this kind of band is still with us. There are also hundreds of college and university bands (mainly in the USA); in the post-swing era it was from groups such as these that some of the surviving bands drew recruits. Today, there are even a few (that’s very few) that get together on a fairly regular basis and some of these play at prestigious venues. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis is one example, the New York Jazz Repertory Orchestra is another. It is a handful of albums by some latterday big bands that prompts these notes; one from 1992, two from 2005, and one from 2011. All of these vividly, and in different ways, display why this kind of music still maintains its hold on audiences around the world.
Jimmy Heath Little Man Big Band (Verve 314 513 956-2)
Jimmy Heath, tenor saxophone, leads: Virgil Jones, John Eckert, Bob Millikan, Lew Soloff, Claudio Roditi – trumpets; Benny Powell, Eddie Bert, Jack Jeffers, John Mosca – trombones; Jerome Richardson, Ted Nash, Danny Bank, Billy Mitchell, Bill Easley, Loren Schoenberg – saxophones; Roland Hanna – piano, Tony Purrone – guitar, Ben Brown – bass, Lewis Nash – drums, Steve Kroon – percussion.
On this 1992 recording can be heard echoes of the tradition, section work, brass and reeds, bringing to mind second-stage Count Basie. Over the years, Jimmy Heath was known best for his work in small groups, but here, leading, playing and writing, he admirably demonstrates his all-round ability in jazz. The ensembles, while reflective of late Basie are always original and are outstanding, forming as they do excellent vehicles for a succession of exceptional soloists. Although in some respects this set can be seen as a personal tour-de-force by the leader, Jimmy Heath never hogs the spotlight and there is a succession of imaginative solos by, among many, Roland Hanna, Claudio Roditi, Billy Mitchell, Benny Powell and Tony Purrone. Among the music performed here are Jimmy Heath signature pieces, CTA and Gingerbread Boy, as well as The Voice Of The Saxophone, Forever Sonny and Trane Connection. Big band fans will find much here that meets expectations and brings great pleasure.
Dave Holland Overtime (Sunnyside SSC 3028)
Dave Holland, double bass, leads: Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, Alex Spiagin – trumpets; Jonathan Arons, Robin Eubanks, Josh Roseman – trombones; Mark Gross, Antonio Hart, Chris Potter, Gary Smulyan – saxophones; Steve Nelson – vibraphone & marimba, Billy Kilson – drums.
Noticeably drawing inspiration from a more recent musical standpoint, this 2005 set brings a post-bop ambiance to charts that allow ample scope for some key soloists of modern music who improvise impressively; and it should be noted that there are also several imaginative and exhilarating duets hereon. Joining Dave Holland in the engine room are Steve Nelson, whose vibraphone style is clipped yet articulate, and drummer Billy Kilson, powerful yet capable of subtle cushioning when required. This unusual three-piece rhythm section provides an always swinging base for the brass and reed sections who play with considerable verve. Among the notable brass and reed soloists are Chris Potter, Antonio Hart, Mark Gross and Robin Eubanks. The rhythm team also become involved in sometimes breathtaking exchanges with the horn sections and soloists. Big band playing needs more than power and flair, it also needs understanding and subtlety and all of this is here in abundance.
The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra Live @ MCG (MCG Jazz MCGJ 1017)
John Clayton, bass, and Jeff Hamilton, drums, co-leading: Eugene ‛Snooky’ Young, Sal Cracchiolo, Clay Jenkins, Gilbert Castellanos, Bijon Watson – trumpets; George Bohanon, Ira Nepus, Ryan Porter, Maurice Spears – trombones; Charles Owens, Jeff Clayton, Lee Callet, Rickey Woodard, Keith Fiddmont – saxophones; Tamir Hendelman – piano, Randy Napoleon – guitar, Christoph Luty – bass.
Recorded live at Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen Guild in May 2004, this band is one of that happy few that get to play regularly and this can be heard in the manner in which they combine a togetherness of purpose with an enviably loose swing. John Clayton’s charts are at the base of the band’s success along with the punching drive of Jeff Hamilton. Throughout, the bite of the brass section and the incisive yet flowing reeds are a joy to hear. Among the many exceptional soloists are Ricky Woodard, on Georgia and Jody Grind, where Ryan Porter is also featured, and Tamir Hendelman and George Bohanon, both of whom appear on Lullaby Of The Leaves, and it should be noted that this John Clayton chart was nominated as Best Instrumental Arrangement at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards. The co-leaders are also heard in solos, Hamilton’s being crisp brief moments while Clayton displays his technical brilliance and musical artistry on Nature Boy. Familiar themes from past masters of jazz are heard, among them Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, Thelonious Monk’s Evidence, with the trumpets blazing away, Ray Brown’s Captain Bill, on which both bass players excel, and Sonny Stitt’s Eternal Triangle, a breakneck romp from brass and reeds. And speaking of past masters, Snooky Young was 85 years old at the time of this Pittsburgh gig, but when he solos on Like A Lover the years just melt away.
Christian McBride The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue MAC 1053)
Christian McBride, double bass, leading: Frank Greene, Freddie Hendrix, Nicholas Payton, Nabate Isles – trumpets; Steve Davis, Michael Dease, James Burton, Douglas Purviance – trombones; Steve Wilson, Todd Bashore, Ron Blake, Todd Williams, Loren Schoenberg, Carl Maraghi – saxophones; Xavier Davis – piano, Ulysses Owens, Jr. – drums, Melissa Walker – vocal.
With an enviable reputation as a supporting player, Christian McBride is also a soloist of exceptional skill who is always exciting (not a quality readily associated with bass players). It is yet another facet of this remarkable musician that is on display here, that as arranger. This 2011 recording is his first as leader of a big band and he takes this new departure with considerable skill. His charts are in a late-Basie style, with sparkling ensembles, freewheeling saxophones, punching brass and rhythm, with here and there hints of Ellingtonia, as for example on Broadway, with it’s melodic nod to Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’. Good solos abound, from Nicholas Payton, Steve Davis and Steve Wilson, as well as Xavier Davis and the leader himself. Melissa Walker’s fluid yet tough-edged vocal sound fits in admirably with the big band sound on When I Fall In Love, The More I See You and A Taste Of Honey. Throughout this set, the musicianship is of the highest standard, wholly integrated ensemble playing, imaginative solos, and an ever-present sense of delight that comes through every note played and embraces the listener.
Big band fans will have noticed that the five leaders of the four bands here include three bass players. There were not many of them during the long history of this kind of music; Charles Mingus, of course, and Chubby Jackson, Andy Kirk at a stretch because his Clouds of Joy was not really a big band, and that’s about it. Also in that group of five leaders there is a drummer, and neither have there been too many drummer-leaders. Coincidence perhaps, that in these present days when big bands are rare, it is the backroom boys who are stepping into the limelight. Whatever the reason – personal, musical, creative – it is more, much more, then merely welcome. It is an absolute delight. Long may they and their peers and successors continue to bring big band music to the world of jazz.
All of the albums mentioned here can be found at Amazon.
What’s more, if you go into the second-hand bookshops linked to Amazon you will find copies of The Big Band Years by Bruce Crowther and Mike Pinfold, often at ridiculously low prices. Mike and I get nothing out of sales such as these, but it is drawn to your attention for the historical perspective it will bring to the music heard today. And there are also visual delights to be had from The Big Band Years because of the many photographs of those bygone days. Almost all of these came from the collection of the late Franklin S. Driggs, some only rarely appearing in print. These pictures alone make it worth spending a little time looking for a copy of this book.
April 15, 2015
Deanna Witkowski Raindrop (Tilapia 003)
The subtitle to this lovely album is deliberately explicit: Improvisations With Chopin. Explicit because Deanna Witkowski has sought in her improvisations to attune her mind to that of the composer of the original themes. Importantly, she has succeeded in her aims and the result is a thoroughly delightful recital of much-loved melodies that retain the composer’s romanticism while displaying the art of the presenter. The eight works of Frédéric Chopin, four preludes, three nocturnes, and one etude, will be familiar to many, and Witkowski clearly loves this music and is always respectful of its charm and beauty, staying close to the original themes while improvising upon them her own conceptions. The pianist has also long held a fascination with the music of Brazil and on three tracks she segues smoothly from Chopin to leading composers from that country’s grand tradition. The Prelude in E Minor Op. 28, No 4 blends into Insensatez, which Antonio Carlos Jobim based on Chopin’s piece, the Prelude in C Minor Op. 28, No. 20 transitions smoothly into Olha Maria, and the Nocturne in E Minor Op 72, No. 1 into Manhã De Carnaval. An American standard is similarly enjoined with Chopin as Witkowski develops the Etude in E-Flat Minor Op. 10, No. 6 into You And The Night And the Music. On the other four Chopin pieces here, the pianist stays with the great composer, building her own musical improvisation from the original. Among these is the Prelude in D-Flat Major Op. 28, No. 15, an especially haunting version of the work known as the ‛Raindrop’ Prelude. There are also six tracks of originals by Witkowski, all are short (four are less than two minutes) and are inspired by the master’s melodies and harmonic structure. All of this music is beautiful to hear and is enhanced by the recording quality that brings to life an exceptional instrument. There may be those who remain uneasy at mixing jazz with classical music. This wholly admirable set should dispel any fears for the sanctity (real or imagined) of either one or the other form. Speaking of this release, Deanna Witkowski states that: “The whole idea of this project was to have the original Chopin pieces be the grounding for the arrangements – not to just add a specific rhythm and play the piece as a swing tune.” She achieves her intention and this release must surely appeal to open-mined aficionados of both jazz and classical music. Indeed, it might be recalled that Duke Ellington once remarked that there are two kinds of music, good and bad. This is definitely good.
This album is available from all good walk-in and on-line stores, the latter including Amazon.
April 5, 2015
With more and more of us turning to e-books, this is a good time to note that some of my now out-of-print books are available in this format. They include:
Singing Jazz: the Singers and Their Styles by Bruce Crowther & Mike Pinfold
This book explores the lives, words, and music of vocalists past and present to portray the diverse and stimulating world of the jazz singer. Singing Jazz examines the ups and downs of a tough profession: the learning process, on the road and in school; the problems of building a repertoire, finding work, traveling, performing in often difficult circumstances; and the struggle for recognition in the world of popular music, where talent and dedication are sometimes not enough.
Comments on this book (print edition):
“The text is enriched with extensive anecdotal material and an encyclopedic-styled biographical section.” – Don Heckman – Los Angeles Times
“. . . interviewed especially for Singing Jazz – some of today’s best performers illustrate the contemporary view of jazz singing. Kitty Margolis, Mark Murphy, Helen Merrill, Mark Porter, Christine Tyrrell, and many others discuss the influences and experiences that have shaped their singing careers, and share insights on how their art is still evolving today.” – goodreads.com
“In addition to biographies of jazz singers of yesterday and today, this is a how-to book for singers.” – JazzStandards.com
“(The world) where the voice itself is an instrument, and the art of improvisation and self-expression reigns–is explored in this illuminating book.” – Indigo.ca
“The scintillating story of a vibrant and exciting art form. Illuminating profiles of legendary artists, including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Louis Armstrong, and many more.” – JazzScript.co.uk
Gene Krupa: His Life & Times by Bruce Crowther
With his handsome, overwrought, gesticulating presence both on-stage and on-screen, Gene Krupa (1909-1973) changed beyond recognition the role of the jazz drummer and provided a lasting visual image of the Swing Era. Despite his spectacular drumming with the Benny Goodman band, the drummer’s sensationalized, phony drug bust in California in the 1940s secured his reputation, in the public’s mind, as a drug addict. In fact, underneath his glamorous stage persona, he was a quiet, reflective, and deeply religious man, as well as a dedicated, professional musician. Bruce Crowther sheds new light on Krupa’s Polish immigrant background in Chicago, the places he lived and worked, and the musicians he learned from and played with. In exploring that background, the book evokes the inspiration Krupa provided for his own and succeeding generations of drummers.
Louis Armstrong: His Life & Times by Mike Pinfold
The most famous jazz trumpeter of all time, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) will also be remembered as a band leader, film star, comedian, and the first jazz personality to become an international celebrity. Born in New Orleans, he played in marching bands and on Mississippi riverboats but became famous with the Chicago band of ‛King’ Oliver. With his extraordinary instrumental range, gift for variations, distinctive ‛scat’ vocals and extroverted performance style, he succeeded in bringing jazz to audiences who had never before cared for the music. Mike Pinfold sheds new light on Armstrong’s New Orleans background and the unparalleled position he holds in American cultural history.
Bunk Johnson: His Life & Times by Christopher Hillman
Of all the figures to be associated with the revival of early New Orleans jazz in the 1940s, Bunk Johnson (1889-1949) was the most influential and the most controversial. A survivor of the pioneering days of jazz, and hailed in his last years as a ‛grand old man’, Bunk became the symbol of a primitive and simple style of music, with which his own strongly held views were at odds. Jazz critics and enthusiasts divided into those who hailed him as a sage, and those who dismissed him entirely. Christopher Hillman has sifted through the known facts about Bunk’s life, and a mass of documentary evidence, to produce this new account of Johnson’s career. The story which emerges, about the music and about Bunk’s own complicated personality, is a fascinating examination of one of the legends of jazz history.
(Interested in early jazz? Then visit Christopher Hillman’s website.)
Billie Holiday: Her Life & Times by John White
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was one of the greatest artists in the history of jazz, a legend in her own lifetime and, nearly thirty years after her untimely death, a persistent and profound influence on popular music. Frank Sinatra said of her in 1958, “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday . . . who was and still remains the greatest single musical influence on me.” Long before her death, she had achieved notoriety as a drug addict as well as a performer. Although the motion picture Lady Sings the Blues (1972), starring Diana Ross, presented a simplified, often distorted image of her life, it also aroused the continuing interest of a younger generation in her peerless recordings. This book examines her tumultuous life and career, and offers a new perspective on Holiday’s legend by focusing on the early years in Baltimore and her breakthrough role as the first black woman to sing with an all-white band in a segregated society.
Also available as e-books are Bruce Crowther’s:
– stage play, The Colors Of Your Life
– the 1989 Edgar-nominated, Film Noir: Reflections In A Dark Mirror
– five new (2012-2014) crime novels, Dead Man Running, Dark Echoes, Penitence, Harlem Nocturne, All Cut Up
– and look out for the forthcoming sequel to Harlem Nocturne. Set four years later, Harlem Madness again features Black private detective Daniel Leland, this time pitting his wits against gangsters, Black and White, in the days and nights surrounding the 1943 Harlem riots.