June 30, 2015
A word of warning: a wave of nostalgia is approaching. Why? Because this post is about the Mills Brothers. In my life there was music before jazz (that came in at about age 14) and it was quite a mixture, including as it did music listened to on radio and records by parents, sister and brother (both older than me), grandparents, friends and neighbors. Thus there was grand opera alongside music hall ribaldry, musical comedy segueing into brass band music (this was in the north of England), there was operetta, dance band and chamber music, and intertwined with all of this were popular songs of the day. All of this perhaps explains why, even today, I know the words to many songs popular in British music halls many decades before I was born. My brother was a jazz fan and he and his pals crept secretly from house to house, 78s under their arms, to indulge themselves in whatever corner happened to be temporarily free of supervising and disapproving grown-ups. It was a few years before I was admitted to this secret society and began my own journey into the world of jazz. Until then, I followed most of those other musical paths and I recall some instances where an artist or perhaps a particular song would overcome the artificial boundaries we imposed and appeal to all of us. Among these artists and songs, Paul Robeson’s Old Man River comes to mind; the singer being something of a hero for factors that lay outside his musical life. Surprisingly, from time to time there were touches of jazz. Ella Fitzgerald’s A-Tisket, A-Tasket is one example; another is the vocal group, The Mills Brothers, especially with their versions of Paper Doll and The Glow-Worm. It was therefore with delight that I found among recent releases that came to me for review in Jazz Journal a double CD:
The Mills Brothers Paper Doll (Retrospective RTS 4263/4)
For those whose memories do not go back so far, the Mills Brothers formed their singing group in Piqua, Ohio, around 1925. They were real-life brothers, Herbert, Harry, Donald and John Jr., and they soon gained popularity and began making records at the start of the 1930s. Sadly, John died in 1936 and was replaced by the brothers’ father, John Sr., who stayed on until 1957 when he retired and thereafter the group was a trio. Perhaps a side effect of the need to make themselves self-sufficient, from the outset the group did not need accompaniment. In their original format, John Jr. played guitar while some of his brothers imitated musical instruments, creating vocal representations of trumpet or trombone or bass. Following John Jr.’s death, Bernard Addison played guitar for the group for about two years, and was succeeded by Norman Brown. This double album, which covers the years 1931 to 1952, includes all the Mills Brothers’ hits and they had many. In addition to Paper Doll and The Glow-Worm there are also Sleepy Head, Lazy River, Chinatown, My Chinatown and You Always Hurt The One You Love. The unmistakeable vocal sounds of the group is a beguiling melding of many vocal styles, notably early minstrelsy and barbershop singing, but all cloaked in sophisticated harmonization. The brothers sings with a relaxed swing and a strong feeling for jazz. This last quality meant that many leading jazz artists of the day were happy to join them in the recording studio or on radio shows, while their broad appeal brought in artists from the wider world of popular music. Among examples on this release are Louis Armstrong on Carry Me Back To Old Virginny, Cherry and Marie; Duke Ellington on It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing; Ella Fitzgerald, Dedicated To You; Tommy Dorsey, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone; Sy Oliver, Be My Life’s Companion; Bing Crosby Dinah and Shine; Al Jolson, Is It True What They Say About Dixie?.
As mentioned, after John Sr.’s retirement, Herbert, Harry and Donald continued as a trio, touring and recording with remarkable success through succeeding decades. Harry died in 1982 and another singer was brought in for a while, the first time that a non-family member was in the group. Even Herbert’s death, in 1989, was not the end as Donald teamed up with his son, John III, to sing on as a duo. Early hit singles by the quartet notwithstanding, in my view, the best of the Mills Brothers’ recordings come from 1967 and 1968, the years in which the surviving trio made two albums with Count Basie and his orchestra. These are outstanding recordings and richly deserve their regular reissue.
The Mills Brothers and Count Basie The Board Of Directors & Annual Report (Universal MCLD 19366)
and Complete Recordings (Gambit 69223)
To be clear, small differences in track sequencing apart, these releases are the same, the Universal appearing in 1998 and the Gambit in 2005. Any doubts anyone might hold about the jazz content of the Mills Brothers’ work must surely go out the window on hearing these swinging sets. All the qualities the group had demonstrated consistently through the preceding three-plus decades are evident in abundance. Indeed, the brothers are clearly invigorated by the Basie band as they swing through old and new favorites, injecting newly-sparked enthusiasm into familiar songs and reveling in songs rarely if ever sung before. Among the 21 tracks are Lazy River, Cherry, Sunny, The Glow-Worm, April In Paris, The Whiffenpoof Song, Cielito Lindo, Blue And Sentimental, I’ll Be Around, Release Me, April In Paris and Gentle On My Mind. Several Basie soloists can be heard while the charts, Dick Hyman on Annual Report, Chico O’Farrill on The Board Of Directors, match the best of Basie. Altogether, this a meeting of minds and the resulting music is wonderful.
The Mills Brothers Story (Storyville Films)
This 2007 film documentary is a real treat. Mixing insightful interviews with numerous vocal performances, this film allows today’s audience to see as well as hear these remarkable singers. Indeed, it is inspiring to see excerpts from one of the last concert performances by the trio of brothers, Donald, Herbert and Harry. This was filmed in Copenhagen in 1981 and with the backing of a big band they turn in exceptional versions of You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You and Bye Bye Blackbird.
So, the Retrospective double or the Basie set? Hard to choose, but if forced into a corner I would take the later brothers in company with the Count. Then again, maybe not. I know quantity is no way to judge but the overall quality is so good that it is hard to turn away from the 56 tracks that trace the Mills Brothers through their earlier years. Maybe go for both. You won’t be disappointed. Oh, and don’t forget the unmissable film, available on DVD.
All these CDs and the DVD can be easily found, not least at Amazon.
June 16, 2015
Connie Evingson All The Cats Join In (Minnehaha MM 2010)
Not many things in life come with a guarantee, but just seeing Connie Evingson’s name is an assurance of musical quality and this new album fulfills all expectations. The music is good, the instrumentalists with whom she is working are highly skilled, and the singer herself is superb. On my old website I listed three albums, two of them being Let It Be Jazz (Summit) and Gypsy In My Soul (Minnehaha). I mention these because the first included some Beatles’ hits while on the second Connie is accompanied by three different American bands all playing in the style of the QHCF. On this new release there are two songs by Paul McCartney, I’ll Follow The Sun and World Without Love, while the accompaniment throughout is by another band modeled upon the Quintette du Hot Club de France. This group is the John Jorgenson Quintet, the leader doubling on clarinet on some tracks but mostly heard on guitar where his extraordinarily fleet and inventive work vividly displays his admiration for Django Reinhardt, founder of the QHCF. This particular quality has brought John recognition at the Django Reinhardt Memorial Festival in France and he appeared on screen in 2004’s Head in The Clouds, playing the role of the master. With John in his quintet are Jason Anick, violin, Doug Martin, rhythm guitar, Simon Planting, bass, and Rick Reed, drums (and here and there John also adds attractive vocal touches harmonizing with Connie).
Connie’s singing on this wholly admirable set is outstanding; her always true vocal sound is sinewy, poised, engaging and a joy to hear. Among the well-chosen songs are Solitude, by Duke Ellington and Eddie DeLange, Black Orpheus by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Maria, All The Cats Join In by Eddie Sauter, Alec Wilder and Ray Gilbert, Tickle Toe by Lester Young and Jon Hendricks,The Jersey Bounce by Tiny Bradshaw, Eddie Johnson, Bobby Plater and Buddy Feyne, as well as several standards including Love Me Or Leave Me, Dream A Little Dream Of Me, Between The Devil And the Deep Blue Sea, and You’re Driving Me Crazy. Worth more than this passing mention, Connie is joined on All The Cats Join In/Tickle Toe by Jon Hendricks, 93 years old at the time and clearly enjoying himself enormously. A similar sense of enjoyment is always apparent in Connie’s work, whether she is fluently evoking the heart of a ballad or swinging lithely on mid- and up-tempo songs. A thoroughly delightful effervescence pervades everything that Connie does and this new release is something to savor. I don’t know how far and wide Connie travels from her Minneapolis base – I know she plays New York and Toronto – but club, concert and festival promoters the world over should be clamoring for her. If you are lucky enough to live in or near the Twin Cities do yourself a real favor and catch her live. If that’s not an option buy this album. It’s wonderful.
Deborah Latz Sur L’Instant (June Moon 40515)
I have remarked before on Deborah Latz’s ability to delve deeply into the lyrical heart of the songs she sings. Perhaps this is because of her highly successful career acting in various settings, most notably in one-woman performances. What matters here, is that Deborah’s interpretative skills are directed at a rich and varied repertoire of songs, many of which are familiar in the jazz world yet most often as instrumentals rather than vocals. The jazz works Deborah sings here are Abbey Lincoln’s Throw It Away, Dave and Iola Brubeck’s Weep No More, Miles Davis and Jon Hendricks’ Four, Thelonious Monk and Abbey Lincoln’s Blue Monk, and John Coltrane and Jon Hendricks’ Mr. P.C. There are also standards from the American Song Book: Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s All The Things You Are, Eden Ahbez’s Nature Boy, and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s Over The Rainbow, and the album opens with the Love Theme from Spartacus, by Alex North and Terry Callier. The singer is supported by the empathic instrumental duo of pianist Alain Jean-Marie and bassist Gilles Naturel, both of whom have fine solo moments. On this album, Deborah delivers a highly enjoyable set of music that appeals both to the intellect and the emotions.
Ken Greves Night People (Jazz Cat Productions)
An elegant, wee small hours presentation by New York nighttime singer Ken Greves of some classic songs that take an optimistic look at some outwardly dark emotions. Lost love, faded hopes, bruised feelings are all addressed here with care and understanding. Among the songs are One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),The Night We Called It A Day, Street Of Dreams, Let Me Down Easy, and I Keep Goin’ Back To Joe’s. Ken is accompanied with flair by pianist Frank Ponzio, bassist Peter Donovan and drummer Vito Lesczak. These comments are deliberately brief because I had the pleasure of writing the liner notes and that is where you can read my thoughts on the singer and the songs at length.
These albums are available at stores both walk-in and on-line, the latter including Amazon.
June 8, 2015
As the title of a new book makes clear, Dizzy Gillespie is a legend in the world of jazz. Even now, more than twenty years after his death, he still makes news. In part, this is because of the publication of this book, a personal recollection by Dave Usher, and also, importantly if barely believably, the first release of previously unheard music played by him more than four decades ago. Well, not literally unheard, because the content of four albums from Consolidated Artists Productions/Red Anchor Productions comes from an engagement at London’s most famous jazz club back in 1973 and hence those who were lucky enough to be in attendance heard it back then. For most of us, however, it is new; not only that, it is music that is as vital and as immediate as it must have been back then. Gillespie’s quintet had been on tour in Europe for about a month and this was to end with a two-week engagement at Ronnie Scott’s venue in Soho. Supporting the man, who was then being labeled as ‛the world’s greatest trumpet player’ by Ronnie Scott himself, were pianist Mike Longo, guitarist Al Gafa, electric bassist Earl May, and drummer Mickey Roker. In the course of the two weeks at the Frith Street club (extended by a further week with a handshake deal between Gillespie and Scott that gave the visitor a share of the profits) some outstanding music was played. It was decided that it should be recorded and so it was (by Peter Bould), and now we can all share in this magical music.
Dizzy Gillespie Live At Ronnie Scott’s Volumes 1-4 (CAP 1040, 1042, 1043, 1044)
This music extends over four CDs and includes some numbers for which Gillespie was well known: A Night In Tunisia, Birk’s Works, Oop-Pop-A-Da and Manteca. There are also several fine examples of the composing skills of long-serving sideman Longo, among them Sunshine, I Told You So, Alligator, The Truth and Mike’s Samba. At this time, Gafa also wrote extensively for the group’s book although only Behind A Moonbeam is heard here. There are very good solos from Gafa, May, and Roker. Among Gafa’s fluid moments are his contributions to Timet, Olé For The French Gypsies, Mike’s Samba, and I Told You So. May’s solos include Oop-Pop-A-Da and Kush, and here as well as in support, he brings the electric bass much closer to the sound of its acoustic forebear than do most other players of this instrument. Roker also has moments in the spotlight, notably on Manteca, although he primarily provides rock-solid support and throughout displays the skills that brought him the admiration and respect of Gillespie and other leaders. Encouraged by Gillespie, Longo is heard often with extended solos, for example on Sunshine, The Truth (with Gillespie’s spoken introduction in which he takes to task the writer of an ill-informed newspaper review), and The Matrix, the last named being another of the pianist’s compositions. All this said, it is of course the leader who is the ever-sparkling star turn. In his mid-fifties at the time, Gillespie’s inventiveness, imagination, power and command are in evidence with every note he plays and while labels such as that delivered by Scott can be more than a little hyperbolic, it is impossible to make a sensible counter-claim. Brimful of ideas, wit, intelligence, technical brilliance, and unstoppable vitality, Gillespie makes this experience as vibrant and as exhilarating today as it was forty-plus years ago.
The late Alan Plater (prolific playwright, jazz enthusiast, and a regular at Ronnie Scott’s) took the title of one of his radio plays from a remark made by Joe Harriott when he first played with Dizzy Gillespie. During the first few bars Harriott and others were wondering what was so special, but then Gillespie stepped forward and played a solo of such extraordinary brilliance that, as Harriott expressed it, he and the rest of the musicians were left like ‛swallows on the water’. Hearing this music today it’s possible to understand what Joe (and Alan) meant. This is an invaluable record of an outstanding musician, well-packaged and complete with first-rate liner notes by Doug Ramsey and must surely be eagerly sought by many.
Now to the book:
Music Is Forever: Dizzy Gillespie, the Jazz Legend, and Me by Dave Usher with Berl Falbaum (Red Anchor Productions – ISBN 978-0-692-21110-6).
For some, the name of the author will be familiar as he played a significant role in the 1950s in Detroit, producing records by artists including Jackie Wilson and Little Willie John. But before that he was a jazz fan and while still at school he saw and heard Dizzy Gillespie when the trumpeter was a member of Billy Eckstine’s bebop-based big band. He struck up a friendship with Gillespie, one that lasted until Gillespie’s death almost fifty years later. Along the way, Usher formed the Emanon record label, releasing 78s made in Paris by a Kenny Clarke band including Gillespie, later collaborated in the start-up of the trumpeter’s own record company, Dee Gee, and also sometimes traveled with him on international tours. Mainly anecdotal (and given the number of already-published books on Gillespie all the better for that), Usher’s recollections cover in close, personal detail many aspects of Gillespie, among them his religious beliefs, his stand on racial, political and environmental issues, and, of course, matters musical. The latter includes Dave’s accounts of his work as A&R man with Dee Gee and Chess (where, he artists including recorded James Moody and Ahmad Jamal), as well as the many hours of tapes he recorded during Gillespie’s 1956 State Department tour of Brazil. Some of the music from this tour was released on the same label in a 3-volume set in 1999 (and it appears that there is still much to be disseminated). This is an entertaining read and adds color and texture to the portrait all jazz fans have in their minds of a remarkable musician and man.
These albums and the book, which is also available as an eBook (ISBN-978-0-692-21113-3), are available from the usual sources, including, of course, Amazon.