Archive for Jazz

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.

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.

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.

I’m Old Fashioned – Curtis Fuller

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 15, 2021 by telescoper

Saddened to hear of the death last week of the great Jazz trombonist Curtis Fuller I’ve been thinking of an appropriate track to play. Fuller had a long and distinguished career alongside many great artists which makes it difficult to pick just one track as a tribute, but as so often is the case I found myself gravitating back to the late 1950s which I think is probably my favourite period in Jazz history.

Thus I settled on a track from the studio album Blue Train recorded in 1957 by a sextet led by John Coltrane and featuring Curtis Fuller (trombone) and Lee Morgan (trumpet) with Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones on drums. It’s a superb album which is a must-have for any serious collector of this music. I thought I had already posted a track from this album on here, actually, but apparently I haven’t.

John Coltrane is now an established as one of the leading figures in the development of modern Jazz but this record is a reminder that he achieved recognition somewhat later in his life than many other soloists. At 31, he wasn’t exactly old when this album was recorded in 1957 but he was certainly no newcomer either. Obviously it took him a while to find his voice. By contrast the trumpeter Lee Morgan was, astonishingly, only 19 when this record was made; Curtis Fuller was in his mid-twenties.

Everyone plays beautifully on all the tracks on this album, and the blend of trumpet tenor sax and trombone in the ensemble gives this band a very distinctive sound, but I’ve picked a track on which Curtis Fuller really excels as a soloist. The rest of the tunes being based on the blues, this is actually the only ballad on the album, written by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, and called I’m Old Fashioned

R.I.P. Curtis Fuller (1932-2021)

International Jazz Day – A Tribute to Humph

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on April 30, 2021 by telescoper

Today is International Jazz Day which gives me an excuse to post this documentary about the late great Humphrey Lyttelton the anniversary of whose death was last weekend; he passed away on 25th April 2008.

I particularly like this programme because, as well as talking about his own career as a musician and bandleader and as brilliant chairman of the panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, it mentions his radio show The Best of Jazz which I listened to avidly every Monday night and from which I learned a huge amount about the music that I love so much. I taped many of these broadcasts actually, but have long since lost the cassettes. Although his own music was in the mainstream he always played a wide selection of Jazz tracks both ancient and modern on his programme and introduced me to many artists I would otherwise never have heard of.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free – Nina Simone

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on April 6, 2021 by telescoper

First performed in 1963, this classic anthem of the civil rights movement in the USA the words to this song (written by Billy Taylor) seem to me to have a few relevance in this time of enforced isolation.

R.I.P. Chris Barber (1930-2021)

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

I just saw the news that British trombonist and bandleader Chris Barber passed away yesterday at the age of 90. Chris Barber was one of the leading lights of the traditional jazz boom of the 1950s and 60s, during which he led a very fine band including trumpeter Pat Halcox and clarinetist Monty Sunshine among others.

I was fortunate to meet Chris Barber on a couple of occasions at Jazz festivals and he struck me as a really nice man as well as an excellent musician: very friendly and cooperative even with a young student wanting to do an interview for a college magazine. An interesting factoid about him is that he was a very fluent speaker of German and his band toured Germany frequently, even performing in East Berlin in 1965; you can see a recording of that concert here.

I was trying to think of a track to put up as tribute and decided on this one because it allows me to answer a question I asked on this blog a couple of years ago. When I was at school I used to listen to Sounds of Jazz a BBC2 Radio 2 programme presented on Sunday evenings by Peter Clayton. I always used to switch over from John Peel when Sounds of Jazz started and would always listen all the way through. It always ended with this track, a lovely version of an old blues tune called Snag It which I think was written by King Oliver.

R.I.P. Chris Barber (1930-2021).

R.I.P. Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on February 11, 2021 by telescoper

I was just about to have an early night when I saw the news of the death at the age of 79 of legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea. Yet another of the Greats is no more.

In the circumstances I’ll just put up one example that demonstrates his talents both as a pianist and a composer. Chick Corea was in at the start of jazz fusion in the late Sixties when he joined Miles Davis’s band. At that time and through the 1970s he frequently performed on electric piano superb records such as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. He played on a huge range of records sometimes as leader, sometimes as a sideman and sometimes in a duet. One of the first jazz albums I bought was a live recording of a concert in Zurich in 1979 together with vibraphonist Gary Burton. I’ll certainly be playing that this weekend.

This track was recorded at a live performance in 2013 and released on the album Trilogy. It is a great example of him stretching out on a version of his own tune Armando’s Rhumba, of which he has recorded many very different versions, and which is now a jazz standard. The drummer is Brian Blade and the bassist Christian McBride.

Rest in peace, Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Goin’ Down Slow – Archie Shepp & Horace Parlan

Posted in Covid-19, Jazz with tags , , , , , on February 7, 2021 by telescoper

I just updated my Coronavirus page with the days statistics for Ireland (1024 new cases, 12 deaths). We’re obviously well past the Christmas peak but cases are falling very slowly. At this rate we’ll still have several hundred a day by the end of February (which, incidentally will be a year since the first Covid-19 case was recorded in Ireland).

Unlocking with case levels in the hundreds before Christmas was a disaster and I sincerely hope there’s no repeat of that foolishness.

Anyway, the current state of play remind me of this track from a great album called Trouble in Mind which I bought as a vinyl LP about 40 years ago. It’s by Archie Shepp (tenor sax) and Horace Parlan (Piano). Both made their reputations as avant garde jazz musicians but in this album they went back to the roots and explored the classic blues repertoire. Goin’ Down Slow dates back to 1941 and it’s a standard 12-bar blues (usually performed in B♭). Horace Parlan passed away in 2017, but Archie Shepp is still going strong.

 

Old and New Dreams

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , on February 3, 2021 by telescoper

I was just relaxing by listening to the superb album Old and New Dreams (vintage 1977) and thought I’d share a track here given the ongoing prevalence of lockdown dreams. This album was actually the debut album by the Quartet of the same name that featured Dewey Redman on tenor sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Harden on bass and Ed Blackwell on drums. I love the balance they achieved between free improvisation and swing and the interplay between the different instruments. Just listen to Charlie Haden’s playing on this, holding everything together rhythmically but also leading it in so many different directions! This is called Augmented