Archive for Blues

Humphrey Lyttelton & Elkie Brooks – Trouble in Mind

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on August 18, 2018 by telescoper

Mention the name Elkie Brooks to people of my generation or older and most will think of her popular hits from the late 1970s, especially Pearl’s A Singer which made the UK Top Ten in 1977. Elkie Brooks has however had a long and very distinguished career as a Jazz and Blues singer, including regular performances over the years with trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton and his band. This particular track was recorded in 2002, when Humph was already in his eighties, but I think it’s a lovely performance so I thought I’d share it here.

Trouble in Mind is a very familiar tune that has been recorded countless times by jazz musicians. In fact an earlier manifestation of Humph’s Band made a very nice instrumental version way back in 1950 which I have on an old Parlophone 78. The tune is usually credited to Richard M. Jones, but it has its roots in much older spirituals and folk songs. There are a couple of things worth mentioning about it despite it being so well known.. Although Trouble in Mind is a blues, it is a slightly unusual one because it’s an eight-bar blues rather than the more usual twelve-bar variety. The other thing is that there’s something about this tune that suits a rhythm accompaniment in sixth notes, as exemplified by drummer Adrian Macintosh on this track when the vocal starts.

There’s also some fine trombone on this (by Pete Strange) and a nice bit of banter from Humph at the beginning. Enjoy!

Yancey Special

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on November 30, 2016 by telescoper

Time for a bit of Boogie Woogie. This is by the great Jimmy Yancey who, despite having a strong claim to be regarded as the founding father of this style of piano playing, is nowhere near as well known as he should be. In fact he only began to make recordings relatively late in life and never earned enough money to give up his day job, which was as a groundsman for the Chicago White Sox baseball team. He was nevertheless a huge influence on people like Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons who made a great commercial success out of this  genre.

You may or may not know that Boogie Woogie encompasses quite a wide `library’ of left-hand bass patterns, many of which have their own names: the Rocks, the Trenches and the Fives to name but three. I’ve always felt that there was an interesting paper (or perhaps PhD thesis) to be written about the various permutations of notes involved in these figures, which mainly (but not exclusively)  involve the root, third, fifth and sixth notes of the relevant chord, which are usually themselves part of a standard 12-bar blues progression. Usually the little finger of the left hand picks out the root note and since the pattern played by the other fingers doesn’t change as the chords change remembering where your pinkie has to go more-or-less guarantees that the rest of the pattern ends up in the right place.

The simplest of all these Boogie Woogie figures to play is the Barrelhouse left-hand style that just involves a pair of two-note chords (root-fifth and root-sixth). Double up each of those chords and you get the left hand for Meade Lux Lewis’s classic Honky Tonk Train Blues, and so on. I mention that because if you follow the Youtube link you’ll see a photograph of Jimmy Yancey watching Meade Lux Lewis play.

Anyway, though most Boogie-Woogie left-hand bass figures have rather abstract names such as those listed above, this one – which you’ll recognize from a number of other tunes, such as Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill –  is always called the Yancey Special left hand as a tribute to its inventor. Apart from that lovely rolling bass line, what else is great about this track is the way Jimmy Yancey generates such a sense of forward momentum at a relatively slow tempo, e.g. by using the very effective technique (called a “pick-up”) of starting a right-hand phrase just before the bar line indicate by the left hand.

Bloomdido – In Memoriam Charlie Parker

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2015 by telescoper


Today marks the 60th anniversary of the death of the great saxophonist Charlie Parker (“Bird”) on 12th March 1955. I’ve written quite a few posts relating to Charlie Parker over the years but today has provided a good excuse to spend my lunchtime writing another one, this time featuring one of my favourite tracks from one of my favourite albums. First released in 1952 but in fact recorded in two separate sessions in 1949 and 1950, the album Bird and Diz was actually the last studio album made under the joint leadership of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the two main architects of the bebop revolution; the track I’ve picked has the added advantage of featuring another great musical genius on piano, Thelonious Monk.

The Charlie Parker composition Bloomdido is yet another of his variations on the blues, though this one is a bit less intricate than some of the others he wrote. Here are the chords for Bloomdido:


You can see that the progression is based around the standard three chords of a blues in B♭. The foundation is a  “tonic” chord (T) based on the root note of whatever key it’s played in, in this case B♭. This sometimes a basic triad consisting of the first, third and five notes of a major scale starting on that note or, as in this example,  including the dominant 7th so it’s B♭7. The next chord is the subdominant chord  (S), shifting things up by a perfect fourth relative to the tonic, in this case an E♭7 and then finally we have the dominant (D) which brings us up by a fifth from the original root note, in this case F7.

The basic blues sequence in B♭ would be four bars of B♭7 (T), two of E♭7 (S), back to B♭7 (T) for two, then the characteristic bluesy cadence returning to two bars of  B♭7 (T) via one bar each of F7 (D) and E♭7 (S). The sequence for Bloomdido has a few alterations, including a characteristic turnaround at the end instead of the tonic, but is otherwise fairly recognizable. I guess the first part of the title  is a play on the blues origin too, though I wonder if the second part suggests that some of the alterations are inspired by the A-section of the  Juan Tizol standard Perdido?

Some people tell me they find Charlie Parker’s music “too technical” and that somehow if music “needs to be explained” it’s not good music. I don’t understand that attitude at all. I find this music so fascinating and exciting to listen to that I want to try to dig a little bit into it and find out what’s going underneath the surface. It’s particularly striking what a difference a few substitutions and passing chords can make to the overall harmonic “feel” of a piece like this compared to a standard blues sequence, for example. But you don’t need to study the chords to appreciate the sheer beauty of the music that Charlie Parker built on these harmonic foundations; his solo on this track, as on so many others he recorded in his short life,  is just sublime even if you don’t realise how hard it is to play! I guess it all depends whether your way of enjoying a thing is to sit back and let it wash over you, or for it to inspire you to find out more. Many of the physicists I know are deeply interested in music. Perhaps that’s because they’re the sort of people who don’t just think “wow that’s beautiful”, they tend to think “wow that’s beautiful – how does it work?”.

Charlie Parker and Albert Einstein died in the same year, just over a month apart, the former in March 1955 and the latter in April. They were two very different geniuses but it’s as difficult to imagine physics without  Einstein as jazz without Bird.

Sippie Wallace

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on August 17, 2013 by telescoper

I’ve been meaning to post this fabulous old record for a while but for some reason never got around to it. Until know. This is the great Sippie Wallace  who sings and plays piano in the company of Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Honore Dutrey (trombone) and Natty Dominique (cornet), on a 78rpm disc made in 1929 for the Victor label.

Sippie Wallace was born Beulah Thomas on 1st November 1896; she died on her 88th birthday in 1986. Between 1926 and 1929 she made around 40 records for the Okeh label in Chicago and may have made this record while she was still under contract with them. That reminds me of the famous story about Louis Armstrong who performed on some records for another label while on a supposedly exclusive contract with Okeh; he was hauled up in front of the manager at the Okeh label and accused of playing on these other tracks.  Of course it was him – his playing was instantly recognizable – but Satchmo is always alleged to have said “It wasn’t me, boss, but I won’t do it again”. ..

As was the case with Bessie Smith, most of Sippie Wallace’s repertoire was a bit on the raunchy side and this is no exception, but, boy, could she sing the blues. This wonderful performance is entitled I’m a Mighty Tight Woman….

Otis in the dark

Posted in Music with tags , on July 13, 2013 by telescoper

It’s too hot to be cooped up inside writing a blog so I’ve just decided to put some music up. This is a solo blues by the legendary Otis Spann on piano. With a title like Otis in the dark I couldn’t really resist it, could I?

The Lord is listenin’ to ya, Hallelujah!

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , on December 2, 2012 by telescoper

It’s a cold and dreary Sunday and I’m definitely in need of a pick-me-up, so I thought I’d share this you. It was recorded live in 1981 by the Carla Bley Band and can be found on a superb album called, appropriately enough, Carla Bley Live! When this record came out I was an avid listener to Humphrey Lyttelton’s radio show The Best of Jazz and he chose this magnificent track featuring the trombonist Gary Valente as a taster for the album. It became one of the all-time favourites on his show and he played it a number of times over the years.  It’s also one of the most-played tracks on my iPod, as I find it very uplifting on long and wearisome train journeys.

The trombone is usually described as a brass instrument, but Gary Valente makes  his sound more like it’s made of wrought iron; Humph described the sound as as “like that of a wounded bison”. Anyway, ignore the rather dull pictures of churches used in the video, and just listen to one of the  most overwhelming performances in all of Jazz; the immensity of Valente’s trombone sound is at times almost terrifying. And if you’re one of those people who dislikes Jazz that’s stylistically dated later than about 1945, give this a hearing because it’s absolutely drenched in the Blues and Gospel traditions. I’ll even let you call it awesome

P.S. No, I haven’t gone religious, but this track disproves the old theory that the devil has the best music…

Backwater Blues

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , , on January 5, 2012 by telescoper

Although the risk of flooding has abated somewhat in these parts, the various alerts reminded me that I should post this classic piece of music. It’s not only a definitive example of the art of the blues, sung by the incomparable Bessie Smith with James P. Johnson on piano, but also an important piece of American social history, as it documents the Mississippi River flood of 1927, which brought death and devastation to seven southern states, including Tennessee and Arkansas as well as  Mississippi. It’s mistitled “Black Water” on the clip – it should be “Backwater”, but whatever its name it’s definitely the Blues.


I can’t be satisfied

Posted in Music with tags , on November 23, 2011 by telescoper

I’m up early, if not so bright, on this dark November morning in order to take an overpriced train to London for yet another  meeting of the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel, this one being the final “plenary” meeting of the current grant round at the Institute of Physics in London . Anyway, I won’t have time for a proper post as I travel hither and thither (or vice versa) so here’s one of them there blues to you to listen towhile I’m having fun (?). This is by the late and very great Big Bill Broonzy. And, yes, it is just him playing the guitar, although at times it sounds like at least two people playing…


Now’s The Time

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on August 20, 2011 by telescoper

I’m up early and going to be out of here for the day, so here’s a bit of music to keep you going. It’s another of Charlie Parker‘s variations on the blues in F, this time called Now’s the Time.  It’s definitely one of the bluesiest of Bird’s blues, and indeed it’s quite close to the usual 12-bar chord progression:

| F7| F7| F7 |F7 | B♭7| B♭7| F7| F 7| C7| B♭7| F7| F7|

In fact this goes – if I’ve heard it right –

| F7| F7 | F7| F7| B♭7| B♭7|F7| D7| Gmi| C7| F7| C7|

No doubt people will correct* me for having cloth ears if I’m wrong but in any case it’s an all-time classic, so enjoy!

*Indeed so, and a more accurate set of changes that has been suggested to me is

F7|Bb7|F7|Cmi7 F7| Bb7|Bb7|F7|D7#9| Gmi7|C7|F7 D7|Gmi7 F7|

You’ve Got To Give Me Some..

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on April 2, 2010 by telescoper

Another quick break from writing gives me an excuse to post another favourite tune…

If you thought that raunchy lyrics were bound to be banned from records made 80 years ago, then just get a load of this.
It was recorded in 1928 by the greatest female blues singer of them all, Bessie Smith (“The Empress of the Blues”), together with Clarence Williams on piano and Eddie Lang on guitar. Bessie Smith was a notoriously loud and sometimes violent woman, who had an insatiable appetite for booze and sex (with, it’s said, both men and women). She also had a voice like no-one else on earth before or since.

 This is one of several very naughty records she made in the late twenties, others including “Do your duty” and “Take me for a buggy ride” but this is probably the rudest of the lot. I like the video too. Enjoy!

Now, anyone for round steak?