Thursday, June 30, 2011

Roger Kellaway and Finding New Wonders

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Alto saxophonist, Phil Woods calls him Jazz’s Boswell. Phil ought to know as he has been around long enough to have been involved in over half of the history of Jazz. 

Most of us know said Boswell as Bill Crow - bassist, author and all-round good guy.  And if Bill has a rule-to-live-by, one which he stresses over-and-over again, it’s that “Jazz is supposed to be fun.”

To my ears, no one better exemplifies this approach to Jazz than pianist Roger Kellaway. But please don’t misunderstand this to mean that Roger isn’t serious about his music or that he is in any way belittling Jazz.

Roger’s music is full of joy, happiness and unexpected adventure and, as such, is full of the fun of finding new wonders in Jazz. Listening to Roger play is like being let into the funhouse at the amusement park. For Roger, as for Bill Crow, Jazz is fun. That’s the point of the whole thing.

Roger, too, has his own Boswell. Gene Lees, the eminent Jazz writer and reviewer, has devoted an entire chapter to him in his Arranging the Score: Portraits of Great Arrangers [New York: Cassell, 200]. Appropriately, the chapter on Roger in Gene’s book is entitled “Soaring.”

In another of his compilations, Gene Lees tells the story of  how when pianist Alan Broadbent first encountered the music of Bill Evans as a young boy growing up in his native New Zealand, he burst into tears at the sheer beauty of it.

The first time I ever heard the music of Roger Kellaway as a young man, I burst out laughing. It was the laughter of delight based on the thrill and disbelief of what I’d just heard him play.

Whenever Roger soloed during this first hearing, it was the musical equivalent of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” - Walt Disney’s famous cartoon adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in The Willows.

Roger was all over the place: dense bop lines followed by stride piano licks; dissonance followed by melodically beautiful phrases; propulsive rumbling out of the lower register followed by cat-running-along-the-piano-keys tinkling in the high notes.

The Power of Positive Swinging [Mainstream 56054; Mainstream Legacy JK 57117] was the source of my initial Kellaway encounter. The album also introduced me to the Clark Terry & Bob Brookmeyer quintet which featured the trumpet-flugelhorn sound of the former blended with the valve trombone tone of the latter.

Brookmeyer had played with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet in the late 1950s so I was not surprised to find bassist Bill Crow and drummer Dave Bailey from Geru’s quartet continuing with Bob in the new group that he had formed with Clark. Roger Kellaway joins in as the piano player on the album. It was a name I had never heard before, but one that I would never forget after hearing him perform on this LP.

The shock was immediate. It began on the opening tune. With a title like Dancing on the Grave, I should have guessed that something unusual might be going on.

In a band led by Terry and Brookmeyer, two of modern Jazz stalwarts, I’m listening to this ultra hip, slick and cool arrangement when quite suddenly, its piano player begins to interject licks made up of an admixture of stride, honky-tonk and boogie woogie styles!

I couldn’t believe my ears and found myself laughing at the sheer boldness of expression. It was almost the musical equivalent of the verbal idiom: “Wait a minute, you can’t do that” or “Did you hear what he just did?”

Did I get a prize because I had found this musical anachronism? Didn’t I just find the transistor radio in full display next to the driver on the buckboard wagon?

And if Roger was stylistically “all over the place” on the first tune, he didn’t let up on the second one – Battle Hymn of the Republic.

On The King by Count Basie he plays the most marvelous straight ahead solo with some phrases ending in train wrecks [clusters of notes that sound as though their crashing into one another] in the upper and lower register before closing out with licks from the Dixieland anthem - 12th Street Rag -  played in a ragtime style. Who was this guy?

Dissonance and rhythmic duets with himself on A Gal In Calico, the most sublime and swinging introduction on Brookmeyer’s original Green Stamps with a marvelously sustained tremolos in the left hand that becomes another delightful surprise during a piano solo that creates the feeling of riding on a cloud, followed by blurted tonal clusters and more unexpected diversions in his solo on Just an Old Manuscript: who was this guy?

In his liner notes to the album, Nat Hentoff quotes Bob Brookmeyer “… in a rare surge of adjectives,” as saying: “Roger is one of the most impressive, versatile talents I’ve heard in recent years. He can play any way; and no matter what way it is, it’s clear he’s not jiving.  He really is able to become part of a wide range of contexts.”

Well, that cleared that up; if Brookmeyer says Kellaway’s “not jivin’” then at least I could be reassured that this wasn’t a put on.

But with Roger resident on the east coast in a group that didn’t travel to the west coast [my home was in California], this was the extent of my exposure to Roger and his music.

That is until he showed up a couple of years later on the West Coast!

Roger’s move to California a few years later provided me with an opportunity to hear him in performance a few times.

Along the way I had also gathered-up his earlier trio recording for Prestige and some sides he did with guitarist Jim Hall.

Being already predisposed to Roger’s distinctive pianism, I next heard him on Spirit Feel [ST- 20122] an LP for Pacific Jazz he recorded in 1967 on which he is joined by Tom Scott [soprano & alto saxophones], Chuck Domanico [bass], Johnny Guerin [drums]. On some tracks Paul Beaver adds musique concrète effects through the use of a tape recorder.

Spending time with this album, it wasn’t long before I recognized that I was in the presence of a unique, musical mind; a mind that would have to encompass genius to know all the things that Roger demonstrated in his music and put them together as well as he did.

Many years later, I encountered the following writings by the late Gene Lees and the late Richard Sudhalter that confirmed my original assessment of Roger's genius.  It was comforting to have my opinion of Roger's exceptional and extraordinary talents be in such good company.

At the conclusion of these narratives, you will find a video tribute to Roger that was developed by the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and features as its soundtrack, Roger’s trio performance of Milt Jackson’s Spirit Feel replete with Paul Beaver’s tape recorded musique concrète effects.

© -Gene Lees/John Reeves, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“No one has had as much influence on my musical thinking as Roger Kellaway. When you write songs together, and Roger and I have been doing that for nearly twenty years, you get to know how your asso­ciate's mind works.

Once we were at a party at Henry Mancini's house. Roger was playing piano. Hank listened, shook his head in admira­tion of Kellaway's protean and unorthodox gifts, grinned, and said, "Roger, you're crazy."

No one I know can work in so many styles. He's recorded with everyone of note in jazz. One song Roger and I wrote had a simple country and western style melody. Yet Roger is an established and highly respected symphonic composer.

His jazz playing can be poignantly lyrical or rhythmically powerful, and when it's the latter there is a certain wildness in it, for Roger has a taste and talent for polytonality. His hands have an astonishing rhythmic independence.

Roger's icono­clastic Cello Quartet records, with an instrumentation of cello, bass, percussion, and piano, are now considered classics.

Roger is a product of the New England Conservatory in Boston. He worked pro­fessionally as a bass player as well as a pian­ist, and sang in the conservatory chorus, on one occasion under Charles Munch. His tastes run all the way from the earliest music to the most experimental.

For all the scope of his accomplishments, Roger sometimes has attacks of the uncertainty that plague all artists. Once we attended a rehearsal of the music he wrote for a George Balanchine ballet. He asked me to tape it for him. Later we sat in his car and listened, and at the end he said with a sort of sigh, ‘Well, I guess I do have some talent.’” [Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz, Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 1992, p. 144].

© -Richard M. Sudhalter, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“My first realization that Roger Kellaway might be something out of the ordinary came, I think, because Bud Farrington left his drums in my basement.

It was 1954, or thereabouts. We were high school students, crazy about listening to, and playing, jazz. Bill Haley and the Comets might be the frisson du jour on the pop charts, but as far as we were concerned they might have been active on Mars; our world consisted only of Lester Young, Bobby Hackett, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong and other major jazz figures.

We'd had a weekend jam session, a regular event in our tight little circle in suburban Newton, Massachusetts, just outside Boston.  I played cornet in a self-consciously Bix Beiderbeckish manner; Dave Shrier brought his tenor sax, Don Dygert his trombone. Frank Nizzari, our 14-year-old prodigy, was on clarinet, and Fred Giordano was the pianist.

Roger played bass. We knew he also played piano; but his use of "modern" chords, and his busy, boppy ways of comping behind a soloist were a source of eternal contention: Roger played great, we thought, but he played too much. He filled the gaps, never left a soloist room to breathe; led you down what whatever harmonic path took his fancy in a given moment. Giordano, if technically half the pianist, was also about half as cluttered: his economical, swing-based approach generally kept everybody happy.

Bud - now Gen. Anthony j. Farrington, USAF, ret. - had left on a two-week family vacation directly after the session. Seeing the drums there, set up and begging to be played, was too good a chance to pass up. I phoned Kellaway.

"Hey, Rajah," I said, using a nickname whose full genesis would only be comprehensible to a fellow-New Englander, "want to have a crack at Bud's drums? All the cymbals are here, and he's even left sticks and brushes. Come on over." Within half an hour he did just that, and we set to work jointly unraveling the mysteries of jazz percussion.

I went at it with more enthusiasm than skill, gradually working up an energetic (if home-cooked) simulacrum of George Wettling's Chicago-style ensemble shots and devil-take-the-hindmost approach to four-bar solo breaks. (It was to serve me well some years hence when, through a chain of accidents not worth repeating here, I found myself playing drums on a rockabilly record date in pre-Olympic Atlanta, Georgia).

But never mind.  Roger tinkered with the set for about an hour, figuring out how every element worked; suddenly, it seemed, he was quite at home, playing along with - was it a Basie record?  He just had it down: elegant time, light touch, Jo Jones-like use of the cymbals. With or without technique, he could easily have fit into most anybody's rhythm section then and there.

Bud came home, reclaimed his trap set, and life went on.  I heard Roger play drums a couple of times after that, usually sitting in for a number during the last set of a dance gig. My abiding sense of it is that, had he so chosen, he could have made himself a quite respectable career as a drummer.

But that's the way it's always been with Kellaway.  He listens, watches, has a go and he's got it, now and forever. We often played tennis on Saturday afternoons: all it took was figuring out how the various strokes worked, and all at once he was Jimmy Connors, mopping up the court with me.  Sure, I won one now and then -- but even now, all these years later, I can't escape a hunch that he let me cop a few just to keep me believing I could do okay against him.

He'd picked up bass that way, too, when we were both at Levi F. Warren Junior High School. The bandmaster, one Vincent J. Marrotto, needed a bassist for the school orchestra.  Kellaway, in turn, needed little persuasion: he just took the damn thing home one day, figured it out, practiced himself into some technique, and -- Shazam!  He was a bas­sist. And it was as a bassist that he went on the road for the first time, as part of a band cornetist Jimmy McPartland was taking to Canada.

But it soon became obvious that piano was his major instrument, and had been all along.  It remained the locus of his creativity, and over the following decades he became one of the most versatile and inclusively creative pianists on the New York jazz scene.  I say "inclusive" because stylistic categories and distinctions seemed to mean little to him: he was equally at home, equally comfortable, playing for Don Ellis or Bobby Hackett, Tom Scott or comedian Jack E. Leonard; or accompanying Joni Mitchell or Bobby Darin. Whatever the setting, Kellaway was - as Ian Carr put it in The Penguin Rough Guide to Jazz – ‘a technically brilliant and often exceptionally adventurous pianist as well as an excellent composer.’

So it has remained. Mark well the word "adventurous": part of what makes Roger special is his willingness, even ardor, in accepting challenges. Whether composing a ballet for Balanchine or knocking off a raggy closing theme for the eternally popular TV sitcom All In The Family, he's forever in control, forever fresh -- and never, ever, predictable.

For awhile he and Dick Hyman appeared at Michael's Pub and various jazz events as a piano duo. That the two of them should have taken to one another comes as no surprise; they learn the same way, figuring out how something works, how a sound is produced, then just wrapping it into an ever-expanding arsenal of skills. Hyman has worked duo with many pianists, some of them - Derek Smith and Roland Hanna, for example -- his technical peers.  But it's no disservice to any of them to say that Roger may have been the only one who both matched him technically and teased (some would say bullied) more out of him, forcing him to burrow beneath his own glossy surface to find richer stuff.

An album of Kellaway-Ruby Braff duets not long ago resulted in some of that cornetist's most inspired playing -- again, playing up to and beyond his own rigorous standards. Kellaway's own "Cello Quartet" --cello and rhythm section -- produced composi­tion and playing of a rare beauty.

But you can read all that and more in any jazz reference book. What's significant here is that, one day in 1987, Roger accepted my invitation to play a solo piano recital at New York's Vineyard Theatre.  Fortunately the concert was recorded, and appears in its entirety on this CD. Beginning to end, he plays with wit, style, consummate skill. And -- perhaps most important - there's not a moment when he loses the quality that lies squarely at the core of his work: a deeply felt sense of melody.

‘I think there'll always be people around who gravitate toward a melodic ability,’ he said in a between-sets conversation. ‘There will certainly be all the others - those people who do the flash-and-dazzle and tap-dance, and can play a skillion notes, and maybe impress you on the surface.’

‘But, looking at my life and getting older, [I'm] realizing how important it is to play a melody and a ballad, until you finally reach a point of understanding where you say, “Oh, yeah -- that's what music is about.”’

A visit to Israel some years ago resulted in a deep-going study of Jewish history, philosophy and law (which led him at one point to contemplate conversion).  The Endless Light, his trio for piano, violin and cello, came out of a sojourn in Jerusalem; one movement, David Street Blues, was played by the National Symphony Orchestra on the 40th anniversary of the state of Israel.  Further plans envisioned a large piece, perhaps a cantata, to be performed at the Citadel in the Israeli capital by orchestra, jazz quartet and up to 100 voices, with libretto in English and Hebrew. ‘I'd want that to be a glorification of man's relationship to God,’ said Kellaway.  ‘Not fear -- there's plenty of that around already -- but the glory. Consider the psalms, and the majesty they contain.’

As Roger sees it, a life in music must be one of universality, of interconnectedness.

Consider this recital: whether in the romanticism of Johnny Mandel's Emily or the gentle self-mockery of You Took Advantage of Me the roll-and-rumble of Ellington's early Creole Love Call (which is a blues) or trombonist Charles Sonnastine's Blackwall Tunnel Blues (which isn't), he finds new and poignant things to say. He can stride, as he shows on a playful When I Grow Too Old To Dream, then explore the light-and-shadow of Hoagy Carmichael's brooding New Orleans. And, ending the program, tender his own heartfelt plea for world understanding, in the new-age accents of "Un Canto Per La Pace," A Song for Peace.

In a sense, Roger Kellaway remains the same kid who mastered Bud Farrington's drum kit in my basement more than four decades ago. Musically omnivorous, intellectually tireless, energy undiminished, he's sui generis, his spirit growing and deepening by the day.

‘What's happened to me, I think, is that I've renewed what I can call my sense of spiritual responsibility: responsibility to myself to grow spiritually, and have that effect everything in my life.  Now, when I sit at the piano, I never waste time.  If I'm here it's to play, to get to the heart of as much music as I can, and to share it, communicate it.’

Which is, beyond any doubt or argument, precisely what he does here.”

[Insert notes to Roger Kellaway: The Art of Interconnectedness, Challenge Records, CHR 70042].

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Metropole Orkest - Jerry van Rooyen/ Come Fly with Me

Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw - Henk Meutgeert/Riffs n Rhythms

The Dizzy Gillespie Story – Spending Time with The Writing of Max Harrison

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Those of you who scroll the columnar or left-hand side of the blog may have come across Max Harrison’s singular comments about Tadd Dameron’s recording of Fountainbleau as reprinted from A Jazz Retrospect which is made up of a selection of his 1950s/60s reviews from the Jazz Review and Jazz Monthly magazines.

Max belongs to a select group of original thinkers that include Philip Larkin, Benny Green, Martin Williams and Stanley Crouch, to name a few, who speak their minds very directly about their likes and dislikes about Jazz, often in a style that is as much caustic and acerbic as it is literary.

The editorial staff thought we’d bring more of Max’s writing up on JazzProfiles, this time with a feature on the early recordings of Dizzy Gillespie.

© -Max Harrison/Jazz Review, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Gillespie's innovations long since passed into the life blood of jazz and it scarcely is necessary to discuss the elements of his style now. Yet although the extent of his influence cannot be questioned, his position in the music has for many years been quite different from what it was just after World War II, when bop made its first impact. For non-American listeners that impact was initially felt through the records he made, several with Charlie Parker, for obscure, long-defunct com­panies such as Guild or Musicraft in 1945-46. To have gone on listen­ing to these for some thirty years has been a considerable enrichment because, although on first acquaintance they seemed to possess a rather contrived audacity, they have retained a power to delight, even astonish. Uneven in musical quality they certainly are, but all contain great moments, and it long ago became obvious that the finest of them are among the classics of recorded jazz, their value as unlikely to diminish in the future as it did in the past.

Many factors went into the making of postwar jazz: some were the creation of individuals and some were the result of a cross-fertilisation of ideas; some had been for years developing in the jazz of the 1930s, even of the late '20s, others had come from spontaneous insights. The early Gillespie records were the first attempt at a synthesis of all the playing and thinking which had gone on, but if by 1945 the key musicians were ready, the record company supervisors were not. It took them a while to grasp that something fresh had occurred, and so on many sessions boppers were confronted with players whose ideas had been completely formed in the 19305. In view of the new music's deep roots this was not too damaging, but unquestionably these early performances, in terms of style, are less than completely integrated.

Melancholy baby, Cherokee and On the Alamo, recorded under the clarinetist Joe Marsala's name, are representative here, setting Gillespie in a tight, jivey late-swing framework. He sounds like a disci­ple of Roy Eldridge—not in the negative sense of a Johnny Letman, mechanically echoing the mannerisms, but as one who has divined further possibilities within that idiom and can see where they might lead. His continuity already is better than Eldridge's, his use of the upper register less illogical. Blue and  boogie, the first item recorded under Gillespie's own name, finds him in comparable circumstances but achieving more positive results. The underlying pulse is wrong, and his execution is less immaculate than it soon became, yet the lengthy trumpet solo, although loosely put together, includes features of melodic invention, rhythmic structure, harmonic thinking and tone-colour that were to remain characteristic. Everything else in the per­formance is made to sound redundant, and, the 1944 recordings of Parker with Tiny Grimes and Thelonious Monk's with Coleman Hawkins notwithstanding, this improvisation is the earliest fully-fledged statement that we have from a major postwar jazz musician.

Soon Gillespie recorded with a more apt personnel, including Parker and Clyde Hart, who pecks out the chord changes with discre­tion and sympathy, and was among the few pianists qualified for this sort of music in 1945. Grooving high and Dizzy atmosphere are typical of the boppers' initially rather drastic renewal of the jazz repertoire, and are fertile ground for improvisation, their themes packed with musical incident yet enigmatically honed to bare essentials. Parker, indeed, is especially fluent, revealing a side of his musical personality not much represented on studio recordings: his tone has an airy, singing luminosity reminiscent of Benny Carter, and the alto saxophone solos on both these pieces are full of grace and elegance. This delicacy again characterised his work on the 1946 Ornithology session, and, to a lesser degree, the Relaxing at Camarillo date of the following year, but it was always rare.

Gillespie has two solos in Grooving high the first of which begins strikingly but collapses with a miscalculated descending phrase which leads into a bland guitar solo by Remo Palmieri. Later the tempo halves and he plays some beautifully shaped legato phrases that would then have been quite beyond any other trumpeter; this passage later provided the basis for Tadd Dameron's fine song If you could see me now. On the faster Dizzy atmosphere he takes a daring solo which conveys the essential spirit of the bop solo style and in itself is almost enough to explain the commanding position Gillespie held in the immediate postwar years. After the solos there is an attractive unison passage for trumpet and alto saxophone which flows into a deftly-truncated restatement of the theme—a neat formal touch.

The date which produced Hot house and Salt peanuts had a still better personnel, including Al Haig at the piano. Using the chord sequences of popular songs as the basis for new compositions was common during this period (though not an innovation, as so often claimed), and Dameron's Hot house is a superior instance of the practice, supplanting the usual AABA pattern of four eight-bar phrases with one of ABCA. Gillespie's solo here is effectively poised over Haig's responsive accom­paniment, and, as on One bass hit part 1, contains definitive illustrations of the bop use of double-time. Parker digs deeper than at the previous date and shows himself well on course for his great Koko session, which took place a few months later and is dealt with on an earlier page.

Salt peanuts is a good, rather aggressive theme based on an octave-jump idea, and this arrangement, which includes some interesting harmonic touches, draws from the two-horn ensemble a fuller sound than usual. Parker seems less assured than before, yet Haig is good and Gillespie better. His entry could scarcely be more arresting, and emphasises as clearly as any moment on these recordings the absolute freshness of his imagination at this time: surely nobody else would then have dared to attempt this passage on the trumpet. The rest of his improvisation is played with equal conviction, but in another version of this piece, recorded soon after, some of the intensity is replaced with a sharper clarity of organisation.

Although Parker's work was uneven almost throughout 1945, there is no doubt of the added emotional depth he gave to these recordings, and Gillespie noticeably dominates more in his absence. Twelve months after the Salt peanuts date the trumpeter led a session on which—at last—all the participants were bop adepts. Sonny Stitt, who shared with Sonny Criss a reputation (which really belonged to John Jackson) of being the first man to emulate Parker's style, has a fair sixteen-bar solo in Oop bop sh'bam that is close to the master in tone yet far simpler in melodic and rhythmic concept. Its effect is completely obliterated, however, by Gillespie. The trumpeter did other fine things at this date, such as his solo on That's Earl, brother and his imaginative accompaniment to Alice Roberts's singing in Handfulla gimme, but on Oop bop sh'bam he plays with unrelenting intensity and perfect balance between detail and overall form that produce a masterpiece of jazz improvisation, worthy to stand beside Louis Armstrong's stop-time chorus on Potato head blues of almost exactly nineteen years before.

Despite the originality of their small combo work, to which almost equally powerful expression was given on several other titles in this series, including Confirmation, Bebop and Shaw 'nuff, the boppers were unable to establish a comparable orchestral idiom. In fact, due to its intimacy and relative complexity, bop, like New Orleans jazz, was inherently a music for small groups. The harmonic vocabulary, which scarcely was more advanced than Duke Ellington's of several years before, could easily have been written into band scores, but melodic and rhythmic subtleties derived from the leading soloists' im­provisations could not. The linear shapes of the reed and brass scoring in Gillespie's earlier big bands, like that of Billy Eckstine which preceded them, did incorporate some new ideas, but included no innovations of ensemble texture comparable to those then being carried forward by Gil Evans with Claude Thornhill's band which are discussed elsewhere in this book. The boppers were able only to adapt their style to the big band rather than the converse.

Their best arranger was Gil Fuller, who, while possessing a good sense of traditional swing band style, and having an acute awareness of any large ensemble's requirements, managed to sacrifice fewer of the new ideas, to compromise less with the old. In fact, his scores, which are less subtle of mood and texture than Ellington's but more complex than Count Basic's, seem, in their use of the orchestra as a virtuoso instrument, to descend from Sy Oliver's work for Jimmy Lunceford. Marked differences arise because of Fuller's wider melodic, harmonic and rhythmic vocabularies, yet both men used their orchestras as vehicles for dazzling ensemble display, with sudden contrasts that, however aggressive, never descended to Kentonesque melodrama. Fuller's imagination, like Oliver's, was disciplined, in a sense almost conservative, and his scores are characterised by clarity of texture, an exceptional fullness of sound whether loud or soft. And yet if there are orchestral scores which at least partially embody the spirit of the little bands of the mid-19405 they are Gerald Wilson's Grooving high, Oscar Pettiford's Something for you, both of 1945, and Fuller's 1946 Things to come, an adaptation of the small combo Bebop. Unfortunately they were all played too fast in the recording studio to produce their complete effect, and Fuller got this conception over more successfully in The scene changes, which he recorded for the obscure Discovery label three years later.

On neither Things to come nor One bass hit part 2 are Gillespie's solos at all happy (in fact he does better on Pettiford's Something for you). His inventive power is as evident as before, yet it is as if he had difficulty in shaping his material in relation to the heavier sounds and thicker textures of this setting—which is surprising in view of his prewar ex­perience in swing bands. The above comments on the orthodox nature of his orchestra's library are borne out by a conventional statement of Dameron's excellent Our delight theme or by the saxophone writing in One bass hit part 2, but on the former, and also in Ray's idea, Gillespie responds to the themes' melodic substance with masterful solos that are better aligned with their accompaniment. On Emanon, basically a rather old-fashioned powerhouse blues, there are uncommonly forceful exchanges between leader and band, some agreeably pungent ensemble dissonance, a piano solo by John Lewis, and a striking passage for unaccompanied trumpet section. There seems no escaping the fact that in such relatively backward-looking pieces as this the boppers' attempts at orchestral jazz succeeded best.

It was also in 1946 that Gillespie made his first recordings with strings. These were of Jerome Kern melodies and remained unissued for many years because of object ions made by that composer's widow to the allegedly bizarre treatment to which they were subjected. Dur­ing 1950 he made another attempt and recorded eight miscellaneous titles which suggest that Mrs. Kern may have been right, even if for the wrong reasons. Eddie South, on some delightful records made in Paris with Django Reinhardt during the late 19305, proved that the violin is a fully viable jazz instrument, but this lead has never been followed up (least of all by the crudities of Stuff Smith). En masse, certainly, strings have been a consistent failure in this music, and it has been widely accepted that they cannot be employed in jazz due to their inherent sweetness. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a large number of works by twentieth-century composers, such as Schoenberg's String Trio, Bartok's Quartets Nos. 4 and 5, Xenakis's ST/4, or Boulez's Livre, which prove that this whole family of in­struments can yield sounds as invigorating, indeed as harsh, as any found in jazz. In short what is wrong with the use of strings on jazz dates is the incompetence of the arrangers employed, and never was this more so than with Gillespie's 1950 attempts, where they were only one of a number of apparently irreconcilable factors.

For Swing Low, sweet chariot Johnny Richards wrote an absurd light-music introduction for the strings and then established the rhythm with—of all things in a Negro spiritual—Latin American percussion; a male voice choir sings not the rather sultry original melody but a commonplace new one, presumably also by Richards; Gillespie's trumpet solo has better continuity than we might expect in these circumstances, but a final touch of incongruity is provided by a return of the strings' introduction. On Alone together and These are the things I love the strings interrupt less often, and he manages a few dashing phrases in Lullaby of the leaves, but he never really sounds involved and it is impossible to understand his enthusiasm for this project, which was carried through at his instigation. On the Alamo typifies the whole enterprise, for although Gillespie blows with real power here, the trumpet passages are separated by interludes of quite offensive gen­tility from piano and strings —light music at its heaviest. If Interlude in C, a tasteless hodge-podge on a theme from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, seems to have the thinnest string writing of all it may only be due to comparison with that composer's far richer alternative being unavoidable.

The virtually complete musical failure of these 1950 items with strings may seem unimportant until we recall that already the previous year, with his conventionally-instrumentated band, Gillespie had recorded such inanities as You stole my wife, you horse-thief. A random sampling of his small combo recordings from about this period tells the same tale, and shows an almost catastrophic decline from the master­pieces of just a few years before. The champ, an excellent theme, gives rise to a fine trombone solo from J. J. Johnson, but Gillespie merely reshuffles his mannerisms, and the other players are frankly exhibitionistic. Tin tin deo or Birk's works, also from 1951, are only negative in their restraint—despite some good moments from Milt Jackson's vibraharp on the latter and Stardust, which features the trumpeter throughout, is distressingly pedestrian. The reunion session with Parker compelled Gillespie to make an altogether exceptional effort (e.g. his solos on take 2 of Relaxing with Lee or take 4 of An oscar for Treadwell), but the overall impression left by most of his records from this time is of an artist who no longer wishes to dominate, or even to control, his surroundings. And rarely did he ever again. Perhaps the reasons for this were psychological as much as artistic, but Gillespie's rarely swerving downward path from the classic small combo recor­dings he made during the immediate post war years was among the most saddening features of the jazz landscape in the 1950’s.

Jazz Review, November 1959”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Stella by Starlight" - The Maynard Ferguson Orchestra

This arrangement of Stella by Starlight is by trombonist Slide Hampton who also solos on it along with Jimmy Ford on alto saxophone and Maynard on trumpet. Featuring Frankie Dunlop's propulsive drumming, the chart ends with six notes that span five octaves.

Since "stratospheric" was a word that was often associated with Maynard trumpet work, we asked the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD to use images appropriate to this moniker while developing the following video.

They placed Maynard in the stars - where else?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Casa Loma Orchestra and the Beginnings of The Swing Era

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Sometimes it is troubling to realize that my life has more history to it than future.

On the other hand, there are instances when it’s nice to have such a lengthy time span from which to review developments that have occurred in My World.

Or, as Mark Twain once explained: “When I was fourteen [14], I thought my father was the dumbest man in the world. When I turned twenty-one [21], I was surprised at how much he had learned over the last, seven [7] years!”

As is implied in the Twain anecdote, perhaps with the gathering of years comes some improved judgment and a tad more wisdom thanks to the additional information and knowledge we acquire along the way.

Some of these “smarts” may also have to do with learning from one’s mistakes and failures, and I have certainly had my share of these.

Thankfully, Jazz has been a part of my life since my early teens.

Over the “history” of my life, Jazz has changed from a casual, almost informal form of musical expression into an institutionalized art form.

As the writer and critic Grover Sales described it, Jazz has become America’s “Classical music.”

My initial Jazz world consisted of listening to recordings which helped me decide that I wanted to learn an instrument so that I could play this music. This led to performing the music in various settings including rehearsals, clubs and concerts.

When I was coming of age in the music, playing Jazz consisted largely or listening, observing and asking lots of questions and then applying the results of these activities to long hours of practice.

There were no curriculums, study programs or tenured teachers devoted to Jazz. If one was lucky enough to encounter it, there might be a Jazz appreciation class, but it would have been the exception rather than the rule.

Most of the Jazz performers who helped shape my first experiences with the music in the 1950s and 60s had not as yet had books written about them, let alone been the subject of technical retrospectives of their work.

In many cases, the ready source of information about these early musical heroes were the liner notes that graced their LPs as written by such luminaries as Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler and Nat Hentoff, among many, many others.

Formalized scholastic research was at a minimum as were institutes, collections and museums devoted to Jazz and its makers.

Most of the originators of the music were still performing in the 1950s and 1960s and too busy earning a living to spare the time to invest in their musical legacies.

And then, just like that, the years had gone by and it seemed as though every major Jazz figure during the first 50 or so years of the music’s existence was receiving a full length book treatment.

Most of it is good stuff, too, and contains tons of information to help Jazz fans develop a more thorough view of select Jazz artists and their music.

For example, I always assumed that The Swing Era Big Bands era was initiated by the accolades that Benny Goodman’s orchestra received from admiring young Jazz fans of the 1930s.

But after reading the following excerpt Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans Out of the Cool His Life and Music [Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press, 2002], while preparing the recent two-part profile on Gil Evans which you can locate here and here in the blog archives, not only did I gain an insight into one of the major influences on Gil’s music, but I also derived a newfound understanding of the role the Casa Loma Orchestra played in the advent of The Swing Era Big Bands.

“The Casa Loma band, all but unknown today, was the most influ­ential white jazz-oriented band of the early 1930s, when the broad sweep of the Swing Era was still a couple of years away. The band, based in Detroit, had a dashing, dapper appearance (impeccable tails and white tie was the look), and their enthusiasm was infec­tious.

It adopted many of the musical elements of the best black dance bands led by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Bennie Moten, whose popular Kansas City-based band later gave rise to the Count Basie Orchestra. Moten's swinging, riff-based, call-and-response arrangements were a huge influence on Gene Gifford, Casa Loma's chief arranger and guitarist. Gifford emulated Moten's arrangements but wrote with his own colleagues in mind and polished the southwestern style to a sheen. Gifford's scores "required a very high level of expertise... and this the Casa Loma band possessed in abundance."9 [Albert McCarthy, Big Band Jazz, p. 190].

Casa Loma developed its own precise, snappy style and pro­jected an energetic unified swing sound. The band played catchy instrumental arrangements of tunes such as Wingy Manone's "San Sue Strut" and "Casa Loma Stomp"; interspersed in the up-tempo numbers were romantic ballads—such as "Smoke Rings," the band's theme song—that were ideal for close dancing.

Casa Loma's frequent radio broadcasts helped create a large, mostly white, collegiate audience for the band, particularly in east­ern cities where swing already had a foothold in ballrooms and nightspots, but the band also had a following in small towns around the country. "In 1930 the average small-town white boy who loved jazz heard only the Casa Loma band... on phonograph records, in ballrooms and on the air," wrote jazz and jazz dance historian Marshall Stearns.10 [The Story of Jazz, p. 205]

Gunther Schuller, in his comprehensive book The Swing Era, called Casa Loma "the band that set the stage for the Swing Era, the first white band consistently to feature jazz instrumentals and pursue a deliberate jazz policy."11 [p. 632]

With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD, we were able to put together the following video tribute to the Casa Loma Orchestra which features the band on Maniac’s Ball.

Since their isn’t much that any of us can do about the passage of time, itself, perhaps we can devote a little of the time that remains to today’s Jazz scholarship which is shedding more and more light on the formative years of Jazz’s development.

After all, our immortality resides in the minds of others.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ray Brown: “The Will to Swing”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Has anyone ever had a more illustrious career in Jazz than Raymond Matthews Brown?

By the time of his passing in 2002, it seems that Ray Brown had worked with anyone and everyone of significance during the Jazz scene of the second half of the Twentieth [20th] Century.

The list of Ray’s musical associates is as impressive as it is unending, beginning with an offer to join Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1945 on the very first day that he arrived in New York City from his native Pittsburgh!

Over the years, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles met Ray on a number of occasions.  It was almost impossible not to as he was everywhere on the Hollywood musical scene: in the studios, at clubs and in concerts.  You couldn’t miss him if you tried.

We never met anyone who enjoyed playing Jazz more than Ray Brown.

We once remarked to him that he reminded us of Ernie Banks, the outstanding shortstop who played for the Chicago Cubs baseball team from 1953-1971.  Ernie loved the game so much that he often said: “It’s a great day for a ball game, let’s play two!”

Upon hearing this analogy, Ray just smiled, giggled and nodded in agreement.

The giggle and the smile were as infectious as his enthusiasm for all things Jazz.

We were reminded of Ray recently when we read the following description of him as recounted by pianist Oscar Peterson to Gene Lees in the insert notes to Oscar double CD – The Will to Swing [Verve 047 703 2]:

“Although he would record in many formats; with a string section, with a big band, as a soloist, and as a sideman in dates featuring various of the great soloists contracted to the Granz labels; Peterson did most of his work in a trio format. But his first American recordings were in a duo with Ray Brown, who would become as close to him as a brother.

Oscar has described Ray as ‘the epitome of forethought. Sympathetic forethought,’ He said. ‘His talent is almost ethereal... He is a walking sound. Ray has a sound that he walks around with that he can't even describe . . . The fact of having the instrument under his hands makes him approach it that way. There are very few people like that. I think Dizzy's like that with a horn.’

‘And the other thing that Ray has is an innate mechanism, something within himself, that will adjust him to any situation; and consequently he will adjust that situation to what he thinks it should be. Ray has that mechanism within him, like a tuning fork, that keeps him straight.’

‘I think the reason I worked with Ray and can still work with Ray is that I challenge him. I challenged him at every level, just as he's challenged me. I tried to stay on top of Ray, and he'd say, “Go ahead. You press all you want. I'm gonna be there.” And that was a good feeling between us.’

Peterson and Brown stayed together without interruption for fourteen years — longer, as Ray put it, ‘than most cats stay with their wives.’”

The following video provides a sampling of Ray’s powerful bass work. As one of the seminal bass players in Jazz once described to Gene Lees: “My heart is in that sound.”

Joining him on this trio version of Irving Berlin’s Remember are pianist Benny Green and drummer Jeff Hamilton.  The track is from Ray’s BassFace Telarc CD [CD-83340].


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wynton Kelly: 1931-1971 - “A Pure Spirit”

“Wynton’s situation … is worth noting as a startling example of the strange irrelevance of merit to fame in Jazz.”
- Orrin Keepnews, Jazz Producer and Writer

“Nothing about his playing seems calculated .. there was just pure joy shining through his conception.”
Bill Evans, Jazz Pianist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Amazingly, given his background, Wynton Kelly is an often overlooked figure in modern Jazz circles.

One would think that a pianist who had worked with Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie’s 1950s big band, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery, let alone with his own trio made-up of Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, would be more widely known and respected.

But such is not the case for Kelly who is sometimes more acknowledged because he has a first name in common with the phenomenal trumpet player and leader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – Wynton Marsalis – whose father, Jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis, named him after Kelly.

The editorial staff thought it might be fun to spend some time developing a JazzProfiles feature about Wynton, Kelly that is, as a way of paying tribute to his memory.

In the liner notes that he wrote for Kelly at Midnight, one of the earliest album’s that Wynton made under his own name [VeeJay VJ-03], Nat Hentoff commented:

“Miles Davis was being asked one afternoon for a verbal analysis of Wynton Kelly's musical worth. Miles character­istically scoffed at using such imprecise tools as words to describe what happens in jazz; but finally he said: ‘Wynton's the light for a cigarette. He lights the fire and he keeps it going. Without him there's no smoking.’

Another judicious tribute came from Cannonball Adderley who had worked with Wynton in the Miles Davis band. ‘He's a fine soloist, who does both the subdued things and the swingers very well. Wynton is also the world's great­est accompanist for a soloist. He plays with the soloist all the time, with the chords you choose. He even anticipates your direction.’

Somewhat earlier, I'd been talking to King Curtis, a Texan now in New York and a specialist in rhythm and blues. ‘Wynton worked with me for a while, and naturally I've heard him with Dinah and with Miles. What struck me was that wherever Wynton worked, he fitted in. He's not limited to one kind of playing. With Dinah, he had the taste and supportive power of a superior accompanist. With me, he had the fire and the straightaway swinging my bands have to have. And with Miles, he can be as subtle as Miles requires.’

As is usually the case, Wynton was being discussed enthusiastically by musicians before there was much atten­tion paid him in the public prints. …”

And in another of Wynton’s VeeJay LP’s, Kelly Great [VeeJay VJ-06], Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, the great alto saxophonist and, as noted previously, Wynton’s bandmate in the Davis group, said this about Kelly:

“When Sid McCoy of VeeJay Records asked Frank Strozier (phenomenal young alto saxophonist) who did he wish to play piano on his VeeJay record date, Frank immediately said Wynton Kelly. So answered Bill Henderson and Paul Chambers. It is next to impossible to evaluate the role played by Wynton Kelly in a band, for he has a ‘take charge’ quality in a rhythm section such as a Phil Rizzuto or Eddie Stanky had on a baseball team.

Many jazz listeners are unaware that such intangible qualities as fire and spirit make the margin between greatness and ‘just good’. Leading jazz musicians, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis (Wynton's current employer), are cognizant of this fact. A short time ago Miles Davis made an album using another pianist, who at that time was a member of his band, but added Wynton for one selection, explaining, ‘Wynton Kelly is the only pianist who could make that tune get off the ground.’

What does Wynton have that is so different?”

Perhaps the difference lies in what Richard Cook and Brian Morton have described in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.  as “… his lyrical simplicity or uncomplicated touch… [or] the dynamic bounce to his chording …,” or because, as Cannonball Adderley, asserted: “Wynton combined the strength of pianists Red Garland and Bill Evans, his predecessors with Miles Davis.”

Or maybe this difference lies in the following description of Wynton’s playing by fellow pianist Bill Evans as quoted in Jack Chambers, Milestones:

“When I first him in Dizzy’s big band [in the mid-1950s], his whole thing was so joyful and exuberant, nothing about it seemed calculated. And yet with the clarity of the way he played, you knew that he had put this together in a carefully planned way – but the result was completely without calculation, there was just pure spirit shining through the conception.”

Like Bill, Brian Priestley may have also identified the essence of what made Wynton Kelly so unique as a pianist in the following description of his style in Jazz, The Rough Guide: An Essential Companion to Artists and Albums:

“An important stylist, but largely unrecognized except by fellow pianists, Kelly’s mature style was hinted at in his earliest recordings. He combined boppish lines and blues interpolations with a taut sense of timing quite unlike anyone else except his imitators. The same quality made his equally individual block chording into a particularly dynamic and driving accompanying style that was savored by the many soloists that he backed.”

More about Kelly’s special qualities as a pianist can be found in the following paraphrase from Peter Pettinger’s biography of pianist Bill Evans – How My Heart Sings:

“Evans held Kelly’s bright and sparkling style in high regard since hearing him in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, responding to Wynton’s particular blend of clarity and exuberance. This reaction was typical of Evans’s appreciation of the work of his fellow pianists; from Oscar Peterson to Cecil Taylor, he was full of admiration for their diverse talents and generous in his praise.”

As detailed in Groovin’ High,  Alyn Shipton’s life of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the unique character of Kelly’s piano style may have been the result of combining years of experience in playing in rhythm and blues bands with a fine Jazz sensibility.

Of his work with his own trio, John A. Tynan had this to say in a Down Beat review:

“It is one of the most cohesive and inventive rhythmic groups in small-band Jazz today.”

Musicians commenting about Wynton’s work on their recordings state: “The presence of Kelly may account for the difference …,” “… the album would not have been excellent without Wynton Kelly’s sterling support,” and “… he is disarmingly pleasant to work with, the very model of a mainstream pianist.”

The Jazz writer and critic, Barbara J. Gardiner closed her insert notes to the 1961 VeeJay 2-CD compilation Wynton Kelly! [VeeJazz-011] with the declaration that “You would expect Wynton Kelly to be comprehensive as well as creative. Hasn’t he always been?”

Although she was referring to the material on these CDs “… tried and proven, mixed in with a bit of the fresh …,” this could also serve as an apt way of describing Wynton’s approach to Jazz piano: wide-ranging and inventive.

One is never far away from the Jazz tradition when listening to Wynton Kelly, but what he plays is himself; he has incorporated his influences into his own musical “personality” and recognizably so. Four [4] bars and you know its him.

Wynton is not a pianist who overwhelms the listener with startling technique or originality of conception.

But what he does offer is playing that is full of joy, funk and a feeling for time that fills the heart with happiness, sets the feet tapping and get the fingers popping the beat.

Wynton Kelly is the pianistic personification of swing, or if you prefer: “smokin’,” “cookin’” or “boppin’.” 

When Wynton plays Jazz piano, you feel it.

Nothing cerebral here in any deep or complicated sense, just – “Clap hands, here comes, Wynton.”

Hear it for yourself in the following tribute to Wynton that features him along with Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones. The tune is Rudolph Stevenson’s On Stage” from Kelly at Midnight [VeeJay-03] and it displays vintage performances by all three members of one of the greatest rhythm sections in modern Jazz history.