Tue, 6 October 2015
When we list the great piano players of the last fifty years, for some reason Monty Alexander seems too often to be forgotten. In a career spanning five decades, Alexander has built a reputation exploring and bridging the worlds of American jazz, popular song, and the music of his native Jamaica, finding in each a sincere spirit of musical expression. In the process, he has performed and recorded with artists from every corner of the musical universe and entertainment world. Who else can claim working with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Quincy Jones, Barbara Hendricks, and Bobby McFerrin, but also with Ernest Ranglin, Sly Dunbar, and Robbie Shakespeare. When Clint Eastwood wanted to record the soundtrack to his film Bird, a movie about the life of jazz titan Charlie Parker, it was Monty Alexander he chose to record the piano track. And Alexander is still going strong, having released the second album of his Harlem-Kingston Express band’s material this past spring.
In celebration of the Jamaican jazz icon, pianist Donald Vega has put together a hard swinging compilation of Monty's great, early compositions. With Respect To Monty features an all-star lineup backing Vega, including Anthony Wilson (guitar), Hassan Shakur (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums). Shakur, a long-time Alexander collaborator, lends a welcome tone of authenticity to the group’s tunes.
Vega does more than imitate Alexander – he successfully brings out the spirit and joy of the great pianist’s work in these tracks. It helps that he has Wilson’s guitar front and center – this CD s in many ways a testament to his playing, be it soaring leads or supportive comping. Shakur, a long-time Alexander collaborator, lends a welcome tone of authenticity to the group’s covers. Lewis Nash plays like – well, Lewis Nash, which is a high compliment indeed.
Podcast 498 is my conversation with Vega, who since he left the Manhattan School of Music and The Juilliard School, where he studied with piano great Kenny Barron, has performed at a very high level. He replaced the late Mulgrew Miller as the pianist for world renowned bassist Ron Carter’s Golden Striker Trio. His last album, Spiritual was a trio recording with the solid-gold rhythm section of bassist Christian McBride and drummer Nash.
Musical selection from With Respect To Monty include "3000 Miles Ago", "The Gathering" and "Mango Rengue."
Direct download: Podcast_498_-_A_Conversation_with_Donald_Vega_about_Monty_Alexander_and_more.mp3
Category:podcast -- posted at: 7:41pm EDT
Mon, 5 October 2015
One of the very first podcasts I did here at Straight No Chaser featured the music of pianist/composer Andrew Hill. It feels appropriate that as I reach the cusp of my 500th podcast, that I stop and appreciate the fiftieth anniversary of the recording of Compulsion, one of Hill’s finest works.
By 1965, Hill had recorded with Rashaan Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley and Joe Henderson, and released more than a handful of albums as a bandleader. Compared to say, Black Fire, his 1963 classic, Compulsion seems a very different kind of album. Where Black Fire is a Blue Note session to a tee – a quartet composed of Hill, Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes – Compulsion begins to explore more adventurous rhythmic ground. Hill explained later that his intention was to "...construct an album expressing the legacy of the Negro tradition," and for that he would need percussion.
Compulsion ended up with just four lengthy tracks, full of fascinating improvisation that Hill would develop over the next few years. The band is top notch – Hill on piano, Freddie Hubbard (trumpet, flugelhorn), John Gilmore (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet) Cecil McBee (bass), a three-headed monster rhythm section of Joe Chambers (drums), Renaud Simmons (conga), and Nadi Qarmar (percussion), and, for the driving track “Premonition”, Davis returning as a second bass player. The music shows Hill's continued growth as a composer, as he eschews overt melody in favor of harmonic invention and texutre.
As a subtly prepared “concept album” with a distinct thematic connection between the four tracks, Compulsion stands as a mature work of art. He would record five more albums for Blue Note in the Sixties, but only two saw the light of day for at least a decade, as the label chose to either sit on them, release them under others' name (Sam Rivers) or put the tracks solely on compilation albums. .
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm EDT
Wed, 30 September 2015
Here in the suburbs of Springfield, Massachusetts, I take moment to reflect on the passing of one of our native sons – alto saxophonist Phil Woods, who passed away yesterday from complications of emphysema at the age of 83.
The loss of woods severs another tie that today’s jazz world has with the Be-Bop Generation of the late Thirties and Forties. Woods was one of the players who picked up the mantle of Charlie Parker after Bird’s untimely death. The New York Times reported that Mr. Woods was known to some, “admiringly if a little back-handedly, as ‘the new Bird.’” The association was solidified when he married Parker’s widow, Chan, in 1957. They later divorced.
While Woods won four Grammy awards for his jazz recordings, most notably his work on large ensemble sessions, the average music listener knows his unique sound for his work on rock and pop sessions. On the recommendation of the producer Phil Ramone, an old classmate at the Juilliard School, Woods was featured on Paul Simon’s 1975 album, Still Crazy After All These Years, playing a lightning –fast bebop-inflected outro on the song “Have a Good Time.” That same year he played a memorably soaring solo on the Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu.” Two years later, Phil Woods was chosen to play the classic solo on Mr. Joel’s now-standard ballad “Just the Way You Are.” Bet you didn't know that was the master.
I had the pleasure of meeting Phil when he played the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, and found him unassuming, even self-deprecating when he talked about himself or his prodigious talents. He was a man capable of swinging with the best, and yet playing the most silken of ballads. His take on “The Summer Knows” remains my favorite version of that tune.
Woods had been active to the end, releasing collaborative albums with younger musicians like Grace Kelly and performing near his home in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Earlier her performed a tribute to the album Charlie Parker With Strings, backed by members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He brought his oxygen tank with him onstage.
Category:general -- posted at: 8:14am EDT
Thu, 24 September 2015
The Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival—Boston's biggest block party—takes place from 12:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., on Columbus Avenue between Massachusetts Avenue and Burke Street in Boston's South End. The outdoor performances, which have drawn as many as 80,000 music fans, are open to the public free of charge. Check here for updates and a full schedule of events.
This year’s festival theme is Jazz: the Voice of the People. “Jazz is a universal language that unites cultures and brings communities together,” said John Hailer, president and chief executive officer of Natixis Global Asset Management in the Americas and Asia. “As one of the world’s premier cultural centers, Boston is a natural home to showcase this amazing American musical tradition, and we are proud to partner with Berklee again this year.”
The outdoor celebration also features a variety of vendor booths offering foods and crafts from all over the world. “Roxbury's High Notes of Jazz” Roxbury Walk is offering tours throughout the day for a nominal fee, exploring the area around the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. The site was once the epicenter of music, food, and nightlife for Boston's jazz community during the 1930s through 1950s. Tours will organize from the Discover Roxbury booth at the festival.
Musical highlights from multiple outdoor stages include nine-time Grammy-nominated R&B artist Ledisi; tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson with legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb; Marcus Miller; the Mosaic Project, a collective led by three-time Grammy-winning drummer and producer and Beantown artistic director Terri Lyne Carrington, with Philly-based soul/R&B vocalist Jaguar Wright; rising funk bassist Alissia Benveniste and the Funketeers; and many others, including our guest in this podcast, Berklee instructor and guitar ace David Gilmore.
David took some time from his schedule to talk with me about Berklee, the Festival and his current musical explorations. Musical selections from Festival artists include tracks from Javon Jackson & We Four (“Freddie Freeloader”); Marcus Miller (“Water Dance”); and Gilmore, here with his band Numerology (“Five, Change”). Tracks from recordings Gilmore made during his career with other artists include Ron Blake (“Sonic Tonic”); Don Byron (“Powerhouse”); and Molè (“Grass”).
Direct download: Podcast_497_-_Previewing_the_Berklee_Beantown_Jazz_Festival_with_David_Gilmore.mp3
Category:podcast -- posted at: 3:57pm EDT
Tue, 22 September 2015
Since the launch of Playboy magazine in 1953, two elements have been remarkably consistent: the first is the celebration of the world’s most beautiful & desirable women and the second is its involvement with music. If we are to believe Hugh Hefner, the Playboy experience was never to have been just about sex—it was about lifestyle. And music—particularly the finest jazz, a personal passion of founder Hefner’s—has always been an essential component of that lifestyle.
While many books have been written about the Playboy organization and the ultimate playboy himself, no book—until this one—has focused specifically on Playboy and the music scene, its impact on popular entertainment (and vice versa), and the fabulous cadre of performers who took to the stages of the mythic Playboy Clubs and Jazz Festivals. For that, we can now turn to Patty Farmer’s Playboy Swings. The highly readable book features candid, in-depth interviews with a multitude of musicians and singers, as well as those involved behind the scenes, as the book moves from the inception of the Playboy Empire through the 1959 jazz festival, to the opening of club after club.
From the first issue of the magazine, music enjoyed pride of place, and by 1957, Playboy had launched its “All Star Poll,” in which readers were invited to vote for their favorite musicians and acts. This led to what was, at the time, a rather bold step for the young company: Playboy began to produce records. Now, Playboy was doing more than discussing or reviewing music; it was actually presenting it. Playboy began to sponsor a series of historic jazz festivals, starting with the groundbreaking 1959 Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago celebrating the magazine’s 5th Anniversary.
It was the success of that inaugural jazz festival that gave birth to the idea of the Playboy Club which opened its first doors in Chicago on February 29, 1960. And once the clubs took hold, it was only natural that they would offer live performances featuring the sort of music the magazine endorsed. As much as anything—including the clubs’ iconic Bunnies—the music presented at the clubs set the tone of the organization and kept patrons coming back for more.
Ms. Farmer, who is something of a “nightclub historian”, and I chatted about this chapter in history that is just now getting exposure. Podcast 495 is our conversation, featuring musical selections that would not have been out of place in Hef’s penthouse, like Frank Sinatra’s “I Get a Kick Out of You”; Al Jarreau’s “Teach Me Tonight”; and Ellis Marsalis’ "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?".
Tue, 22 September 2015
"Just call Nathan; it's locked." – Lionel Richie
He could only be talking about Nathan East, the man who is credited on more than 2,000 albums and several Grammy-winning songs including "Get Lucky," "Footloose" and "Change the World." Perhaps the most in-demand sideman in jazz and pop today, his career has gone from being a 16-year-old touring with Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra to Grammy Award-winning session player for Daft Punk, Beyoncé, Barbra Streisand, EricClapton and so many more.
Nathan’s latest project is a duet member with a fellow founding member of the contemporary jazz group Fourplay, Bob James. The New Cool (on Yamaha Entertainment Group of America is the first true duet project for both, as they follow in footsteps of the legendary bass and piano combos like Eddie Gomez and Bill Evans.
The album has a gentle sound, a combination of epic melodies (on new and old songs) and soulful tunes. James, the distinguished pianist, and East, an unparalleled bass player, are both known for the meticulousness and originality in their music. Both have made careers alternating between electric and acoustic sounds, so while the listener’s initial reaction might be one of surprise, eventually they win you over, assisted by James’ strong arrangements.
James recorded his first solo album 52 years ago and has since composed more than 30 solo albums in the genres of jazz and classical. East released his first solo album in 2014. That self-titled project, also on the Yamaha Entertainment Group label, climbed the charts, setting a record with 26 weeks at No. 1 on the SmoothJazz.com Top 50 chart and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album. East was recently featured in a documentary film entitled For the Record, which is currently streaming on Hulu.
Podcast 496 is my conversation with Nathan as we talk gear, how he creates a bassline, and who might be on his very short list of musicians with whom he has not yet played. Musical selections from The New Cool include the classic “How Deep is the Ocean”; Willie Nelson’s “Crazy”, featuring a vocal by Vince Gill; and the original “All Will Be Revealed.” Two of Nathan’s past successes – Fourplay’s “Sebastian” and Eric Clapton’s “Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself)” round out the podcast.
Tue, 15 September 2015
Pete McCann is the kind of jazz musician with whose name you might not be familiar, but you almost surely have heard him onstage or on record. The New York jazz scene is deep with players, and while Pete doesn't necessarily hang out in Gotham anymore, he sure seems to get his share of gigs and calls, including those from Kenny Wheeler, Dave Liebman, Lee Konitz, Patti Austin, Bobby Previte, Brian Blade, and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He regularly tours as a member of Grace Kelly’s band.
He has appeared on over fifity CDs, and as a leader, he has showcased his abilities at straight-ahead, post-bop, avant garde, Latin, and jazz-rock fusion. Range is his latest CD, the follow up to McCann's previous critically-acclaimed releases, Extra Mile (Nineteen-Eight), Most Folks (Omnitone), Parable and You Remind Me of Someone (both on Palmetto). For this release, he has put together a cast of some of New York City's finest musicians; John O'Gallagher (alto sax), Henry Hey (piano, Rhodes and organ), Matt Clohesy (acoustic & electric bass) and Mark Ferber (drums).
In many ways his most personal CD, Range features his tributes to mentors and muses of his past, from Kenny Wheeler (“Kenny”) and Lee Konitz (“Rumble”) to Anton Webern (“Dyad Changes”) and Bill Frisell (“To the Mountains”). McCann pulls out all the stops on his solos here, which can range from dancing lines to driving rock chords.
Podcast 495 is out conversation, as Pete talks about the new CD, his time with Wheeler, Konitz and Grace Kelly, and his current tour plans. Musical selections include “Kenny” , “Rumble” and “Mustard” from Range; “Something in the Way She Moves” from Melissa Stylianou’s Silent Movie; and “Kiss Away Your Tears“ from Grace Kelly’s Live at Scullers.
Mon, 14 September 2015
Today is the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the New Year 5775. The traditional greeting for the day is "L'Shanah Tovah" - "A Good Year".
Bassist David Chevan of the Afro-Semitic Experience has been working on some jazzed up versions of music associated with the High Holidays for the past few years. I' ve written before about his CDs Days of Awe and Yizkhor: Music of Memory, both of which are full of traditional materials done in the fascinating way he and his partner, pianist Warren Byrd, have become known for.
Click here for a rehearsal recorded. July 29, 2010 featuring Byrd, Chevan, and Cantor Jack Mendelson performing "Avinu Malkeinu", a song asking "Our Father, Our King" for his compassion and blessings for the New Year, Chevan explains about the recording:
This recording came to be because about two weeks ago I recorded a rehearsal with Warren Byrd and Cantor Jack Mendelson. One of the pieces we looked at was Avinu Malkeinu. Funny thing about playing standards . . . give a listen, we didn’t even talk this one through, we just began playing and this is what came out! If you listen hard you can hear Jack’s air conditioner puttering away in the background.
Category:general -- posted at: 8:00am EDT
Fri, 21 August 2015
2015 marks the 80th anniversary of Benny Goodman's famous Palomar concert that started the “Swing Era,” and Israeli-American clarinetist Oran Etkin commemorates the event by bringing together a crack quartet, including Steve Nelson (vibes), Matt Wilson (drums), and Sullivan Fortner (piano) for a creative homage to the groundbreaking quartet of Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa of the 1930s. Praised as a great clarinetist and all-around improviser by the New York Times, Etkin felt a deep connection with Benny Goodman, whose groundbreaking work in redefining the role of the clarinet and challenging the status quo inspired a generation of musicians. The Motema label will release this band’s celebration of the daring and playful spirit of Benny Goodman, What's New: Reimagining Benny Goodman next month. The album is a tribute not by recreating his music note for note, but rather by getting, as Etkin told me, at the essence of who Goodman was and the spirit that he brought to the music,
On August 21, 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, California, Benny Goodman and his quartet performed for thousands of young fans in the live audience and millions more tuning in to a live radio broadcast. Historians today credit this moment as the opening of the Swing Era, In Podcast 493, Etkin talks about this famous gig, and his lifetime fascination with Goodman and his place in musical history.
Goodman had begun to perform “hot” arrangements by African-American bandleader Fletcher Henderson—arrangements that departed from the more romantic style of the day by employing loose, upbeat, syncopated rhythms that had been common in African-American jazz ensembles for years, but had been passed over by white orchestras for years. Goodman’s band would often appear well past midnight, EST, on a radio program called Let’s Dance. This may have limited their exposure on the East Coast, but since the show aired in “prime time” on the West Coast, Goodman would soon discover a huge new fan base there.
The story goes that Goodman stuck to relatively staid, stock arrangements during the first part of the Palomar show, and he began to lose the young crowd. Before their return from the first intermission, the band’s drummer, Gene Krupa, is said to have urged Goodman, “If we’re gonna die, Benny, let’s die playing our own thing.” It was at that point that Goodman famously pulled out Henderson’s arrangements along with all the stops on his talented orchestra, to the crowd’s immense delight. The rest, as they say, is history.
Podcast 493 is my conversation with Oran, as we talk about how the music of Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman influenced him, and how he and his three talented cohorts went about this project. Musical selections from the new CD include their takes on Goodman standards like "King Porter Stomp", "Dinah", and - of course - "SIng, Sing, Sing", the last in a radical revisionary take. From Oran's Gathering Light CD, you can hear "Gambang Suling", a track influenced by his travel in the Far East and Pacific Rim last year.
Direct download: Podcast_493_-_A_Conversation_with_Oran_Etkin_about_Benny_Goodman.mp3
Category:podcasts -- posted at: 10:00am EDT
Thu, 20 August 2015
December will make the centennial celebration of the birth of Francis Albert Sinatra – Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board. Perhaps the most iconic male singer – if not of all genders – of the jazz age, Sinatra made his mark on American culture by excelling as a recording artist, performer and movie actor. From his days as the teen idol who made the bobbysoxers swoon with the Harry James Big Band, through his years of growth as mature interpreter of the Great American Song Book, Sinatra was a one of a kind talent.
As part of Tanglewood’s “One Day University” program in Lenox, Massachusetts on Sunday August 23, Anna Harwell Celenza, the Thomas E. Caestecker Professor of Music at Georgetown University and the author of several scholarly books, including Music as Cultural Mission: Explorations of Jesuit Practices in Italy and North America, will lecture on the topic “A Sinatra Centennial: What Made Old Blue Eyes Great?”
Ms. Celenza’s work has also appeared in The Hopkins Review, Musical Quarterly, Nineteenth-Century Music, Notes, The Cambridge Companion to Liszt (2005), and Franz Liszt and His World (2006) and The Cambridge Companion to Duke Ellington (2014) . In addition to her scholarly work, she has authored a series of award-winning children's books with Charlesbridge Publishing: The Farewell Symphony (2000), Pictures at an Exhibition (2003), The Heroic Symphony (2004), Bach's Goldberg Variations (2005), Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (2006), Duke Ellington's Nutcracker Suite (2011), Vivaldi's Four Seasons (2012), Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre (2013) and a 14-part syndicated series on Louis Armstrong for the NC Press Foundation. She is currently finishing work on a new scholarly book Jazz Italian Style about Jazz in Italy between the World Wars, as well as two new children's books, one on Louis Armstrong, the other on Mozart.
Podcast 491 is my conversation with Ms. Celenza, as we discuss the various aspects of Sinatra’s career to determine just why he has remained a major cultural figure 100 years after his death. Musical selections include “Come Fly with Me”; collaborations with arranger Nelson Riddle on “Sleep Warm” and “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”; “Something”; and a live version of “Witchcraft” from a show recorded at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas in April 1987.