Archive for the Jazz Category

Sugar Rum Cherry – Duke Ellington

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on December 3, 2021 by telescoper

Today has been one of those days on which I’ve been quite busy all day but seem to have achieved very little so I eventually retreated home in the rain to have a drink or several before making dinner.

Jazz and classical music don’t always provide a palatable blend, but here’s one cocktail that definitely works, especially as the festive season approaches. It’s from the 1960 album The Nutcracker Suite by Duke Ellington, based on original music for the ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovksy. Most of the arranging on the album was done by Duke Ellington’s regular collaborator Billy Strayhorn,  and the result is every bit as witty, elegant and charming as you’d expect.  This is their gorgeous take on The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy:

Jazz Quiz – Name that Trumpeter

Posted in Jazz on November 27, 2021 by telescoper

It’s difficult to post a quiz that can be answered easily by the use of Google, but I thought I’d try because this track from Youtube doesn’t have any personnel information or recording date on it.
It’s a big band arrangement by Benny Carter of the standard Just You Just Me. Carter himself solos on this live performance along with other members of the band, but can you put a name to the trumpeter who comes at about 43 seconds, after Carter’s opening solo?

Read on for the answer:

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Pithecanthropus Erectus – Charles Mingus

Posted in Jazz with tags , on November 13, 2021 by telescoper

I heard this track on the radio the other night courtesy of John Kelly’s show and thought I’d write a post about it because I think it’s a neglected masterpiece. Pithecanthropus Erectus is the title track of an album by Charles Mingus released in 1956. For that time it was incredibly new: the long passages of static harmony, along with grunts and squeals from the horns, all became common place in avant garde jazz in later years but it is very surprising to hear them in a record from the mid 50s.

Mingus intended this piece to convey in music humanity’s evolution, which he imagined would end in violent destruction. Who’s to say he was wrong? The tune itself is in an intriguing ABAC form with the B and C sections based on the same unvarying harmonic pattern but the C section being agitated and even chaotic. On the first and last choruses the alto sax of Jackie Mclean and the tenor of J.R. Monterose play improvised duets on the B section while the C section involves the whole band improvising collectively in a style reminiscent of the free jazz of the 1960s. The unusual accents on the fourth beat of the bar were later adopted by Miles Davis on Milesetones. These are just a couple of examples of how influential this track was to turn out to be. Looking back on it in historical perspective you can see how much of the musical vocabulary of jazz expanded with this one track.

Mingus shared with Miles Davis the ability to create music that was distinctively his own while somehow at the same time giving his musicians plenty of time to express themselves. In this performance there’s a very fine piano solo by Mal Waldron who, among other things, very effectively channels Thelonious Monk to a marvelous bass accompaniment by Mingus.

The other three tracks on the album are good too, but inevitably pale beside this work of genius in which Mingus managed to weld all these new and untried elements into a completely satisfying unity that was years ahead of its time.

Two Sugars

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , on September 25, 2021 by telescoper

The song Sugar (That Sugar Baby Of Mine) was written by Maceo Pinkard, Edna Alexander and Sidney Mitchell way back in the 1920s and quickly became a jazz standard played in various ways by various musicians. To illustrate its versatility as a vehicle for improvisers here are two very different versions that are favourites of mine that I’ve had reason to remember recently.

In 1980 I bought an album by the extraordinarily underrated Scottish Jazz singer Jeanie Lambe with the Danny Moss Quartet when it first came out. The British tenor saxophonist Danny Moss was married to Jeanie Lambe from 1964 until his death in 2008. Jeanie passed away last year at the age of 79. Many versions of Sugar are slow and slushy but this a straight-ahead swinging take on it, played at a jaunty tempo, with a fine solo by Danny Moss in the middle.

The second version is totally different. It was performed by the Newport All-Stars at a midnight concert in Paris in 1961. The band was led by pianist George Wein who passed away on 13th September. As well as being a musician in his own right, George Wein owned and ran the famous Storyville club in Boston during the late 40s and early 50s but was perhaps most famous for being behind the annual Newport Jazz Festival, which began in 1954 and is still going to this day. It was quite usual at these festivals to have an all-star band playing in support of various solo artists, which is why Jack Teagarden and Buck Clayton turned up playing behind Chuck Berry at the 1958 Festival. George Wein also persuaded Thelonious Monk to allow Pee Wee Russell to sit in with his Quartet on clarinet for a set – I have the record of that gig and it’s every bit as strange and wonderful as you might imagine!

An eccentric character who struggled with alcoholism, Pee Wee Russell (real name Charles Ellsworth Russell) was somewhat unreliable as a musician but although he was frequently wayward he had a unique voice and, when he was on good form, a beautifully lyrical way of playing with a really original approach to harmony. It might surprise you to know that Sidney Bechet was a big fan of Pee Wee as – no less surprisingly – was Benny Goodman. The great Coleman Hawkins said of Pee Wee in 1961:

For thirty years, I’ve been listening to him play those funny notes. I used to think they were wrong, but they weren’t. He’s always been way out, but they didn’t have a name for it then.

I’ve always been drawn to very original musicians like Pee Wee Russell; the sort that when you hear just one note you recognize immediately who it is. It’s not all about technique. Pee Wee had soul. Messrs Bechet, Goodman and Hawkins et al knew that for all his technical deficiencies he was the genuine article, a complete original.

I’ve always felt that one should judge musicians by their best playing rather than their worst and, on that night in Paris, Pee Wee produced this achingly beautiful and hauntingly tender rendition of Sugar, played as a slow ballad. He’s introduced on this track by George Wein who aptly described him as “The Poet of the Clarinet”. You can of course listen to the track and decide for yourself, but I think this is gorgeous.

R.I.P. George Mraz (1944-2021)

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , on September 19, 2021 by telescoper

I find myself doing yet another R.I.P. post. The great bassist George Mraz passed away on 16th September at the age of 77. When I heard the news I immediately thought of the famous live sessions he did as a member of Art Pepper’s Quartet at the Village Vanguard in New York in July 1977. The quartet featured Art Pepper (mainly on alto sax but also on clarinet and tenor saxophone), Elvin Jones on drums, George Cables on piano and George Mraz on bass. I think Art Pepper was very close to the peak of his prowess on these albums, having spent large parts of his earlier life in prison for narcotics offences. I had the privilege of seeing him play live on a couple of occasions, and he was great, but sadly he died in 1982 at the age of just 56.

The Art Pepper Quartet played on three consecutive nights and recordings were released on LP as Thursday Night at the Village Vanguard, Friday Night at the Village Vanguard and Saturday Night at the Village Vanguard; the latter being the source of this track. I bought all three albums and it’s worth quoting Art Pepper’s comment on Side 1 Track 1 of that album, the ballad You Go To My Head, on the sleeve of the LP

This is something I call a New York ballad. We played it a little faster that I usually play a ballad. Playing with George Mraz was great. When you play with a rhythm section, especially for the first time, sometimes everybody has their own ideas about the tune: the changes, the groove. But with George there’s a communication, he listens, and I can really feel what he’s doing.

Art Pepper, Sleeve Note for Saturday Night at the Village Vanguard

This is an object lesson for a bass player on how to provide a rich and swinging accompaniment at a relatively slow tempo:

Rest in peace, George Mraz (1944-2021).

Attica Blues

Posted in History, Jazz, Music with tags , , on September 9, 2021 by telescoper

I was reminded just now that today marks the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison Rebellion, the bloodiest prison riot in American history which began on 9th September 1971 as a protest against poor living conditions in the Attica “correctional facility” in New York state. Four days of violence ensued that ended in the deaths of 32 inmates and 11 prison officers, along with scores of wounded.

That episode inspired a brilliant album by Archie Shepp, which I have on LP (above), which is dedicated to George Jackson, a leading member of the Black Panthers who was shot dead while attempting to escape from San Quentin prison in California in August 1971, an event which contributed to the tensions in Attica prison that led to the riot a few weeks later.

Musically, the album is a fusion of soul, funk and avant-garde Jazz, the arrangements incorporating strings and vocals alongside the jazz soloists. The sound is absolutely redolent of the early 70s. Here’s the title track, Attica Blues:

R.I.P. Charlie Watts (1941-2021)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on August 24, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve just seen the sad news of the death at the age of 80 of the Rolling Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts. Tributes are justifiably pouring in, mainly concentrating on his career as a rock drummer. I’ll just say that while I’ve never seen the Rolling Stones play live, I did go and see Charlie Watts play at Ronnie Scott’s club in London with a jazz group. I thought they were pretty good actually, with Watts on drums not at all trying to hog the show but instead playing very unobtrusively thought still clearly enjoying himself in the more intimate surroundings of a Jazz club rather than a huge rock venue.

In fact Charlie Watts began as a jazz drummer and although he earned his fame and made a fortune after switching to rock and roll, he always kept an interest in jazz. Indeed he recorded an album of performances of Charlie Parker tunes from which I picked the track below. My Dad – himself a Jazz drummer who was never effusive in his praise of other drummers – rated Charlie Watts as technically sound rather than flashy which was the opposite to most rock drummers. At any rate he passed the test of holding the sticks “properly” (i.e. using the trad grip).

Anyway, by way of my own little tribute to an excellent musician and somewhat eccentric gentleman, here is Charlie Watts with his Quintet playing the Charlie Parker composition Bluebird.

Rest in Peace, Charlie Watts (1941-2021).

Ophelia – The Milcho Leviev Quartet, featuring Art Pepper

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2021 by telescoper

One of the LP records that struck a chord when I was going through my stuff in Cardiff last week was this one:

Looking back over the blog I discover that it was almost exactly ten years ago that I wrote about the very same album so I thought I’d post it again, in slightly amended form.

I first heard the track below on Humphrey Lyttelton*’s Radio 2 show The Best of Jazz, which I used to listen to every Monday night when I was at School. I must have heard this sometime around 1981, i.e. about thirty years ago. From the moment I heard the first achingly beautiful phrases of theme of this tune, called Ophelia, I was entranced and it did more than any other single record to fill me with a love of modern jazz. Although I’d always loved jazz, I had tended to think of it as music “of the past” – even the “modern” jazz of e.g. Charlie Parker fell into that category – and usually made in a recording studio. This sounded so new, so exciting, and indeed so beautiful, that it filled me with the urge to hear live jazz whenever and wherever I could. It cost me a lot of money and a lot of late nights, but I think it was worth it.

The performance was recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London in June 1980 and released on the small British record label Mole Jazz, an offshoot of the famous (and sadly now defunct) record shop of the same name that used to be on Gray’s Inn Road. I loved the track Humph played so much I got the album Blues for the Fisherman straight away (by mail order) and, although I still have it, I have almost worn it away by playing it so much. It’s a brilliant, brilliant album, with the intense atmosphere of a live performance adding to the superb playing of the musicians.

The band is listed as the “Milcho Leviev Quartet featuring Art Pepper”, although that was probably for contractual reasons, as this was the same band that toured extensively as “The Art Pepper Quartet”: Art Pepper on alto saxophone, Milcho Leviev on piano, Tony Dumas on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. I was lucky enough to see this band play live at the Newcastle Jazz festival not long after I got the record and they were great then too. Art Pepper sadly passed away in 1982.

As far as I’m aware this record wasn’t released on CD until very recently and, fortunately, a public-spirited person has put the tracks from the original album and some previous unreleased material on Youtube, so I’ve seized the opportunity to post the track which did so much to inspire me about jazz when I was 18 years old. There’s so much to enjoy in this piece, including the superb drumming of Carl Burnett and virtuosic piano of Milcho Leviev, but the star of the performance for me is Art Pepper (who also wrote the tune). His playing is at times lyrical and at times agonized, but always compelling and this band was especially good at spontaneous transitions of mood and dynamic. I love this performance, and I hope some of you will too.

P.S. Incidentally, Humphrey Lyttelton was born in May 1921 so he would have been 100 this May had he lived.

Kush – Art Blakey & Buddy De Franco

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , on August 13, 2021 by telescoper

One of the things I did during my recent visit to Wales was to pack up my old vinyl LPs for removal to Ireland. I have quite a lot of them on digital formats now but that’s not true of all of them so I’m looking forward to listening to the others very soon.

I bought this particular album Blues Bag as a curiosity as it features the unlikely combination of Buddy De Franco on clarinet (bass clarinet on several tracks, including the one below) and Art Blakey on drums.

Whatever I thought the combination of the smooth style and impeccable technical virtuosity of Buddy De Franco with the powerful and aggressive drum foundryman Art Blakey would be like before I bought the LP, when I first heard it the thing that struck me was how superbly they complemented each other.

Anyway, I thought I would post a track so you can decide what you think. This is Dizzy Gillespie tune called Kush. I think this version is great, with very fine work on the drums by Blakey.

Pennies from Heaven – Lester Young

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on July 27, 2021 by telescoper

Well, some proper rain has arrived at last. I think the plants in my garden are pleased so I thought I’d celebrate with this lovely version of Pennies from Heaven (“Every time it rains it rains Pennies from Heaven”) by the great Lester Young recorded live in a small club, Olivia Davis’s Patio Lounge in Washington D.C., in 1956. In about 1981 bought a set of several LPs recorded over this six-night residency with a house trio led by Bill Potts on piano. People say that “Pres” was in decline at this stage of his life, but it doesn’t sound like that to me from the recrods. The band was a bit nervous when they met their esteemed guest before the first night’s performance as there was no time for a rehearsal, but they gelled immediately playing a selection of blues and standards. Lester Young didn’t need much to send him on his thoughtful way – he often paid even less attention to the tune than he does here – and he clearly enjoyed himself in this modest setting.