Monday, October 31, 2005

Big Banding, part 5

Here's another in my hunt for good one-disk samplers covering a selection of classic big bands from the '20s, '30s and '40s with decent sound, representative material and a reasonable price.

"Benny Goodman and His Orchestra: Sing, Sing, Sing," Bluebird. You want it for the call-and-response soloing by ace musicians that goes on amid the stellar group play culled from 1935-38. A lot of people don't think about what a great improviser Benny Goodman was on the clarinet with, frequently, a boppish or post-bop sound well before it became the norm. Check out his two solo blasts on "Goody Goody." I think it's cool when he uses his flourishes to, in essence, comp the band like it was a single soloist. Great guitar work by George Van Eps on "Bugle Call Rag" and don't miss Gene Krupa's drumming on "Sing, Sing, Sing."

Follow the links to my suggestions for disks featuring the bands of Jay McShann or Glenn Miller or Claude Thornhill or Chick Webb or Fletcher Henderson or Billy Eckstine or Earl Hines or Andy Kirk.

Friday, October 28, 2005

More Peterson alternatives

Here are disks from a three other bop, post-bop pianists who should probably get as much attention as Oscar Peterson.

Phineas Newborn Jr., "Here is Phineas," Koch. His version of "All the Things You Are," which starts out languidly classical and morphs from stride to bop and back is a wonder.

Herbie Nichols, "Love, Gloom, Cash, Love," Rhino. More than a little Art Tatum in his playing, he gives Bud Powell a run for his money and I don't doubt he could have been a concert pianist if so inclined. From "Too Close for Comfort" on, every track is powerful and inventive.

Bobby Timmons, "This Here is Bobby Timmons," Riverside/OJC. There's no version of "My Funny Valentine" I like more and none, I think, more clever. "This Here" plain rocks.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

I'm hoping for more

I'm down with Oscar Peterson, whom I saw get helped to his piano bench a couple years ago at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, start rough and then turn in some playing maybe a handful of folks half his age could muster. But it always ticks me off when I'm flipping through the CDs at, say, a Barnes & Noble or a Borders and there are eight or 10 Peterson CDs available and one or two, if any, from some of the other great bop and post-bop keyboard masters, even Bud Powell for gosh sakes. (There's always plenty of Monk, too, but then Monk isn't a piano player per se. The piano is just the tool by which he plays his real instrument, his genius, which is a whole 'nother thing.)

You would be lucky, for example, to find anything from Elmo Hope and if you do it's probably "The All Star Sessions," a disk less about Hope than the horn men playing with him, Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd and Blue Mitchell among them. That's not the case on "Trio and Quintet," a CD I've wanted for some time and was happy to find last week that Blue Note has now reissued.

Hope has what I would call a light touch, happy and peppy on up-tempo pieces and deftly hinting at melancholy on ballads but not to the point of being depressing. There's always a little, well, hope in his playing. You get to hear him as the featured attraction on the first 10 cuts, in a trio with Percy Heath on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. The other 10 tracks actually include two quintets, with Harold Land on tenor, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Art Blakey drumming, among others. Almost entirely Hope compositions, it's a real keeper and a welcome bit of diversity in the piano jazz selection of your local CD seller.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

I like Ike

If you're a big fan, like me, of Ike Quebec, the deep-toned tenor saxophonist from the same vein as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster but with a sound all his own, you haven't had much choice in CDs: "Blue & Sentimental" and "Heavy Soul" or "Heavy Soul" and "Blue & Sentimental," take your pick. Mr. Quebec went into the business end of recording, for one thing, and didn't lead that many sessions, had drug problems early on when he was playing and died of lung cancer at age 44, not long after the playing side of his career revived.

Which is why the choice was simple when I spied the newly released "Ike Quebec: The Complete Blue Note 45 Sessions" in the bin at Borders over the weekend, especially with a coupon for 25 percent off in my pocket because the two-CD set is a little pricey. But worth it, with 26 tracks ranging from moody ballads like "Blue Friday" and "Imagination" to burners like "Mardi Gras" and "Me 'N' Mabe." All the tracks are Ike with an organist, guitarist, bassist and drummer, Sir Charles Thompson, Skeeter Best, Milt Hinton and Sam Jones among them. I sure wish they made this kind of stuff for jukebox distribution today.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Harry keeps his mouth shut

I tend to think of Harry Connick Jr. as a comely crooner and erstwhile movie actor and then, every once in awhile, something from his CD "Other Hours" will come up from the Party Shuffle playlist in iTunes or on one of my iPods and I'll think, "Boy, what advanced hard bop band with avant-garde leanings is playing that." Sure enough, it's a cut from "Other Hours." (OK, I don't really think that way, but you get the idea.)

So I was excited when "Occasion," another disk on which Harry sings not a word and confines himself to piano playing, came out recently on the Marsalis Music label featuring Connick in a series of duets with the label's head dude saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a favorite of mine and I think one of the best and most inventive current sax players, approaching the status of a Wayne Shorter.

The disk is maybe not as exciting as I expected, but it's good with music ranging from an updated New Orleans dance hall sound to the avant-garde, although more atmospheric, moody, even noirish than foot tapping in sum. There are plenty of classical overtones as well. I'd put it somewhere between "People Time," the Stan Getz and Kenny Barron duet collection from Gitanes and Verve, and "Bobo Stenson/Lennart Aberg" from Amigo. The two Swedes, as you can imagine, are a bit more on the outside than Getz and Barron, who play more to the inside but by no means in a boring fashion. "People Time" may be Getz's best stuff. "Occasion" gives you the same kind of opportunity to listen to Marsalis and Connick in detail and that makes it worth the price of admission. I just wish there were a few more jaunty tunes like "Good to be Home" on it. I highly recommend "Other Hours," which has Harry playing piano in an adventurous quartet. Charles "Ned" Goold on tenor sax is a big-time player.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Bad Plus minus

I'm a big The Bad Plus fan and gave their initial CD "These Are the Vistas" to a lot of people as a gift after taking a flier on it when it first came out. I'd really like to buy the band's new CD "Suspicious Activity" and almost did today until I looked at the back. Sony has applied its XCP copy protection scheme to the disk, meaning it can only be copied to players that play copy-protected Windows Media files, of which there are damn few, or Sony's own protected format ATRAC, which almost everyone agrees sounds awful.

Either way, none of my iPods, or anyone else's, can play those formats. Likewise, you can't use them in iTunes on your computer. Sony's system prevents you from coverting the tracks to MP3 files, which lets out most non-iPod players and non-iTunes playing software as well.

To be fair, you can buy the disk's contents at the iTunes Music Store for $9.90, or $9.09 less than I would have paid for it at Borders. Then again, I was most interested to see what the guys did with "(The Theme from) Chariots of Fire," so I just bought that track for 99 cents. Net savings: $18, which I invested in a CD from another company, one that wasn't copy protected. Incidently, you also could burn the tracks from the iTunes Music Store to a CD from iTunes and rip them back onto your computer as unprotected MP3s with what I would classify as acceptable sound quality. Otherwise, the iTunes Music Store's protection scheme allows you to burn seven CDs without changing the song list, play copies of the songs in iTunes on five computers at once and copy the files to an unlimited number of iPods.

Note to record companies: I spent about four figures on CDs last year and I am on track to do so this year. If you're going to make them impossible to use in my iPods and iTunes, I'm going to stop buying them and live with what I've got, the reasonably restricted (in my opinion) files from the iTunes Music Store and the unrestricted tunes I can get from emusic. I do commend Sony for labeling the disk as copy protected. Such labeling should be required by law.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Big Banding, part 4

Here's another in my hunt for good one-disk samplers covering a selection of classic big bands from the '20s, '30s and '40s with decent sound, representative material and a reasonable price.

"Chick Webb & His Orchestra: Stompin' at the Savoy," ASV/Living Era. You want it for the great ensemble playing by a band that in a battle of the bands kicked the Benny Goodman band's behind, and for the great, if short, solos contained within. Check out the Taft Jordan trumpet solo on "Let's Get Together." You can just see people out there on the floor of the Savoy Ballroom cutting a rug, so to speak. This music, often frenetic, was made for dancing, and mostly fast. Less sophisticated than Ellington, yes, but just as swinging. On cuts like "Down Home Rag" and "Go Harlem," your feet will be moving, man. I'm betting everybody was jumping on "Harlem Congo."

That said, the real reason you want this is for the half dozen selections featuring the teen girl singer Chick Webb said was too homely to front his band ... until she opened her mouth to sing. Ella Fitzgerald made dangerous jazz out of ditties like "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" with this group in back of her.

Follow the links to my suggestions for disks featuring the bands of Jay McShann or Glenn Miller or Claude Thornhill or Benny Goodman or Fletcher Henderson or Billy Eckstine or Earl Hines or Andy Kirk.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Move, stand, listen

Flute player and composer Jamie Baum, who plays alto flute here as well, leads a well-appointed septet through a program that deftly mixes modern classical (Bartok and Stravinsky for two), hard bop and avant-garde influences on "Moving Forward, Standing Still" (Omnitone). The result is a diverse, but still coherent, collection of music that brings to mind a movie score and the Jazz Messengers here, Detroit funk and a Middle Eastern bazaar there. I like it a lot.

Good playing by Ralph Alessi, who's got kind of a Freddie Hubbard or Woodie Shaw sound, on trumpet. (See "In the Journey.") Ditto Doug Yates on Alto saxophone ("All Roads Lead to You"). Tom Varner plays French horn on the disk, George Colligan acoustic and electric piano and Drew Gress bass (with a great solo on "Spring"). They're all leaders in their own right, which makes this kind of an all-star group and it sounds like it. I think I'll hear new things whenever I listen. "Central Park" alone is an aural feast.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Look ma, no piano

Enrico Rava's "Full of Life" from CamJazz has the great Italian trumpeter in a Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker-like pianoless quartet, but with more of a Mingus feel musically. Rava is joined by Javier Girotto on baritone sax (mostly, he plays a nice soprano otherwise), a bassist and drummer. Most of the CD is compositions by Rava and Girotto along with a few standards, "Moonlight in Vermont," done as a fetching ballad with avant-garde touches, and "Nature Boy" among them. "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" is somewhere under the heavy and inventive improvising they do over it. Check out "Happiness is to Win a Big Prize in Cash," a calypso-sounding hoot I can see myself skipping down the street to, if I could still skip. A delightful disk top to bottom.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Free duo

"New World Pygmies" (Eremite) gets you decidedly avant-garde alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc and versatile bassist William Parker, one of my favorite current jazz musicians and group leaders. That's it. Two guys who hadn't played together in a dozen years in a program improvised live. That they do it so well is pretty amazing. This also is a good CD to study the importance, as I've posited before, a bassist can have in free jazz, writ large because it's only Parker and Moondoc.

Moondoc reminds me of later Ornette Coleman, although he isn't that much different than Sonny Rollins either, if you isolated what Mr. Rollins does as this CD isolates Moondoc, which is to say his playing's outside but not excessively outside. Parker does about everything you can do with a bass here. If you enjoy free jazz and improvised music you probably will like this disk.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Heavy Ludwig

So I doubt any heavy metal bands ever invited Gene Ludwig to play with them and there are probably a lot of reasons for that. One might be fear. Fear of the big but smooth sound the Pittsburgh B-3 god pumps out, which would make the metal dudes sound anemic and crude by comparison.

Check out "Soul Serenade" from Loose Leaf Music. From the opener, "Duff's Blues," Ludwig roars, and swings like crazy, too. Great version of the Miles Davis "Kind of Blue" signature tune "Freddie the Freeloader." This blues- and soul-laden disk will wake you up guaranteed. Even the ballads, like "Please Send Me Someone to Love" and the title track, aren't what you'd call sleepy. Some outstanding guitar work from Ken Karsh as well.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Ponder Ponder

Although it's Jimmy Ponder's date, the guitarist and his Pittsburgh colleague organist Gene Ludwig could be billed as co-leaders on "What's New." On the High Note CD "James Street" you get to hear more of Ponder in isolation and as the main man in a quartet setting. Take "J.P.," where he goes on a Sonny Rollins-like improvised solo run, and "Love Theme from Spartacus."

Other highlights include a fun sprint through "You Can't Take That Away from Me," with some clever quoting of "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," and ballady renderings of "God Bless the Child" and "Body and Soul," the former a real contrast from the version on "What's New." John Hicks plays a mostly supportive role on piano but gets in a few good solos of his own, which you would expect from a guy who's simply one of the best modern sidemen, when he's not leading his own excellent sessions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Chasin' a new Trane

In September we got a new CD from a rediscovered tape of Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane playing together in a Voice of America performance in 1957, just as Coltrane was beginning his ascension with "Blue Train" and "Giant Steps." Now we get another treasure, this from the Coltrane family closet, with Coltrane at the height of his skill just after "A Love Supreme" and before he steps firmly into the avant-garde.

"One Up, One Down" from Impulse! includes two CDs from tapes of live stereo broadcasts of Coltrane's classic quartet at the Half Note in New York City in March and May of 1965 on Alan Grant's Jazz Portraits show.

On the title track, Jimmy Garrison sets the table with his bass, although it's actually from a performance in progress because the show didn't begin until 35 minutes after the band had started. In Coltrane's solo, which spans most of the 27 minutes, I hear "A Love Supreme," "Crescent," which a lot of people consider this group's greatest work, and the avant-garde experiments that are coming with "Ascension" and the like. Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones pace him like veteran teammates pacing a great distance runner toward a record-setting performance. The sound is quite good, although a little off balance and glitchy in a few spots since it did come from a tape and made in a broadcast not a studio session, albeit it a pro tape done by Grant for Coltrane. You don't hear McCoy Tyner much on "One Down, One Up," but the pianist and Coltrane trade big-time chops on an electric (the feeling, not the instruments) up-tempo version of "Afro Blue," the other cut on the first CD, which lasts nearly 13 minutes itself.

The second CD includes the "Love Supreme"-inflected "Song of Praise" and a boffo version of "My Favorite Things" that I think contrasts with the title track on the Coltrane studio recording "My Favorite Things," done four years earlier, to show clearly the free-leaning advance of his music. Great, great Tyner solo and support from Jones, too.

By all means, you want "A Love Supreme" and "Crescent" if you don't have them. But "One Down, One Up" rates with "Live at the Village Vanguard," the gold standard for live performances by this historic group. Those four would make for a nice, representative collection. Add "Blue Train," "Giant Steps" and "Ascension" and I could survive on a desert island knowing I'd be able satisfy my regular Coltrane cravings.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Steel City organ goodness

I've got individual CDs from both Jimmy Ponder and Gene Ludwig, fine Pittsburgh-based guitarist and B-3 organist respectively, so I was happy to get "What's New" from my friend Carl Abernathy the other day, a High Note disk that puts the duo in a trio with Cecil Brooks III, a drummer I admire and one of a few producers whose name I consider when deciding whether to buy a CD.

An up-tempo rendering of "God Bless the Child" is an unusual, and almost unrecognizable, version of the standard, and not in a bad way. I dig their blues-drenched rendition of "Please Give Me Someone to Love," in which Ludwig comps behind Ponder's guitar to near perfection. The sweet ballad rendering of "That's All" to close pretty much proves these guys can play any style. You can't go wrong buying this.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Big Banding, part 3

Here's another in my hunt for good one-disk samplers covering a selection of classic big bands from the '20s, '30s and '40s with decent sound, representative material and a reasonable price.

Claude Thornhill and his orchestra "The 1948 Transcription Performances" from the HEP label. You want it because the band is playing stellar arrangements by Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan before the former changes jazz with Miles Davis and the latter cuts his own notable swath.

Mulligan also gets some good solo time on baritone sax, as on the bop hit "Anthropology," and Lee Konitz is in this group playing alto as well. The music ranges from Latin-inflected "Adios" to a pretty abstract rendition of "Lover Man" and the recorded-for-radio sound is quite good.

Follow the links to my suggestions for disks featuring the bands of Jay McShann or Glenn Miller or Chick Webb or Benny Goodman or Fletcher Henderson or Billy Eckstine or Earl Hines or Andy Kirk.

iPod Nano fun

Hard drives being the size of Texas these days, I pretty much copy every CD I buy into iTunes. That, the occasional virtual shopping trip to the iTunes Music Store and my subscription to emusic mean I'm approaching 8,000 songs in my iTunes library.

I use iTunes and my tough little iPod Nano to help me manage my musical cornucopia. I found that the Nano will hold about 56 hours of music. So in iTunes, I created a smart playlist 56 hours long that picks a random selection from my library but only songs I haven't heard in the last 30 days. (I could have set this to 60 days, 90, a year, whatever.) I've also excluded some things like Christmas music and audio books. Now, whenever I connect my Nano to my computer, iTunes moves the songs I've listened to recently out and puts in new tunes to replace them. Slick.

I could have done this with my iPod Shuffle, but the screen in the Nano makes it better for such a thing since I don't necessarily recognize every song and I like to be able to see what and who are playing.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

More iPod Nano scratches

If you're worried about iPod Nano scratches get an iPod Shuffle, which is pretty much indestructable.

No screen, true, but that's what makes it a musical tank. I've created a playlist of a several hundred favorite songs I cycle through my Shuffle automatically with iTunes, so I'm rarely left wondering what tune is playing despite being screenless. It's like having a radio station in my pocket, a really good radio station.

I wouldn't be without my Shuffle. Of course, I wouldn't be without my Nano either. Or my 30 GB full-sized iPod...

Friday, October 07, 2005

iPod Nano scratches

Walter Mossberg, a guy whose stuff I generally agree with, whined about scratches on his iPod Nano in his Wall Street Journal Q&A column this week and I have the same message for Walter as I have for the other people bitching about scratched Nanos and getting far too much attention for it.

Get over it!

My Nano has scratches, too. It has them because it's a tiny device I can carry anywhere with fantastic sound. I don't put it in a case because I don't want to bulk it up. Constant use plus no case equals scratches, it's axiomatic.

That in no way affects the function of my Nano, not even the readability of the screen, as Mossberg implies (I think incorrectly) it could, any more than it affects the function of my little Canon Digital Elph, which has its share of superficial scratches after years of use as well. Check this out if you want to see what it takes to REALLY destroy a Nano. My advice is buy one.

Of course, this post and others like it won't get much press. Sometimes I'm ashamed to be a real-life reporter.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Heard it before

The President, he's got his war
Folks don't know just what it's for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt, they call it treason
We're chicken-feathers, all without one gut
Tryin' to make it real — compared to what?

"Compared to What" came up on the Shuffle this morning and struck me, sadly, as just as relevant today as it was in 1969. It also reminded me what a funky good time "Swiss Movement" is with great piano playing and singing from Les McCann and fine work by Eddie Harris on tenor sax, Benny Bailey on trumpet and Leroy Vinnnegar on bass. It's a CD every jazz fan should have and one I think even non-jazz fans would enjoy.

Not your father's B-3 combo

On "Realization" (Sirocco Music) George Colligan and his group Mad Science graft computer synthesizers to a classic B-3, guitar and drums trio. The result is a package with a mostly rock-like beat and places where it kind of reminds me of the electronic stuff Bugge Wesseltoft does, but with strong overtones of Dr. Lonnie Smith and Larry Young. (On "Grounded," the title track and "Utopian Struggle," among other places.) By turns funky and abstract, I think it's kind of a cool update of the organ jazz combo.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Roky like Rocky

originally uploaded by mrgreg.
You can read the back story on Roky (pronounced Rocky, like the boxer) Erickson at allmusic and his own Web site. Two weeks ago, on a Saturday night after a long day in the 100-degree heat at the Austin City Limits festival and a lot of cold Lone Stars, I found myself listening to his first full concert performance in a long time. I would have been back at the motel showering if I hadn't been there with my musically encyclopedic friends Carl Abernathy and Rodd Zolkos, who wrangled us into attending. Suffice to say, Roky was a revelation.

Which is how I ended up buying last week "I Have Always Been Here Before," a new anthology of Erickson's career from Shout Factory. The music, 43 tracks worth, ranges from being like the Doors to Dylan. There are 10 cuts from his days in the 13th Floor Elevators, the landmark psychedelic band. Meanwhile, some of his stuff reminds me of the more rock-oriented material from folk rocker/musical storytellers Harry Chapin and John Prine, two of my favorites. And there's more than a hint of Texas blues (he's from Austin) in there, too. Sorry, I detect no jazz.

OK, Roky sings about working at the Kremlin with a two-headed dog and thinking up demons sometimes, but there also are some touching ballads and stirring calls for social justice on the two disks and a lot of stellar guitar work. At his best, he's as good as the Beatles, Stones or anybody else from the '60s. This new fan is pulling for him and suggests you do as well. Start by getting "I Have Always Been Here Before," which will be good for both of you.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Harper's peak

"Somalia" is an excellent display of Billy Harper's prowess, which I think is on par with, say, an Eric Dolphy or Sam Rivers. On the title track of the Evidence CD, the tenor saxophonist improvises rather amazingly off the elemental base of an African chant that introduces the song.

The other big draw is the Coltrane-esque "Thy Will Be Done," which pushes boundaries for nearly 22 minutes. With "Somalia" at more than 13 and "Quest" at nearly that, there's lots of room to be inventive and Harper and crew, including dual drummers, take advantage. This is the Billy Harper disk to have. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson, a favorite sideman of mine, also gets a chance to show he can do more than play straight ahead flawlessly.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Avant-garde messengers

That hard bop iconoclast Art Blakey might turn over in his grave if he heard me say it, but Grachan Moncur III's recent CD "Exploration" sounds to me like Jazz Messengers meets Archie Shepp, or maybe what the Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" nonet might have sounded like if it had come along a decade later.

The disk puts the trombonist, pretty much unrecorded the last 20 years, in a big-hitter nonet playing eight of his compositions as sympathetically rearranged by conductor Mark Masters. Among the other players: Gary Smulyan, one of my favorite baritone saxophonists, Gary Bartz on alto, and tenorist Billy Harper, who should get a lot wider recognition than he does. These guys perform like a group that's been working together for years rather than a pickup band. All of it's interesting, but I especially liked "Monk in Wonderland" and "Frankenstein." They tip the scales all the way to the avant-garde on the freely improvised "Excursion." On the Capri label via the American Jazz Institute, it's an intellectually stimulating CD I can recommend enthusiastically.