Tue, 25 April 2017
My first exposure to Ella Fitzgerald was in a television commercial for Memorex audio recording tape. Their slogan was “Is it live or is it Memorex?” and the ad showed Ella breaking a glass with her incredible singing voice. Then a recording of her voice on a Memorex cassette was played, and again the glass was shattered. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate her not just for the amazing power of her voice, but its extreme musicality, warmth, soul and wit. She could go from a torchy ballad to a scatting jam session in a moment, and excelled at both. In my mind, no one touches her as a singer.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the First Lady of Song. Born in Newport News, Virginia, she moved to Yonkers, New York with her mother. She had a difficult childhood, suffering abandonment and abuse, ending with a stint in an orphanage and state reformatory for girls. Her physical appearance was gawky and ungainly, and her clothing often disheveled during these trying times. But she was also a gifted dancer, a keen student of music, and a devotee of the singer Connee Boswell, an early pioneer of jazz singing.
While she honed her craft in the church, her big break came when she won the famous Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at the age of 17. Originally planning to dance, she sang two songs and won first prize of $25. Two weeks later she was singing professionally, and within a few months was the female vocalist for the Chick Webb Orchestra, with whom she would have her first hits. Her signature tune “A-Tisket A-Tasket”, written by Ella and Al Feldman, came a few years later and cemented her status as a major jazz singer through the end of the big band era and through bop. She made some of her finest recordings in the early fifties as part of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and with Louis Armstrong, including the seminal Porgy and Bess.
But Ella went beyond being a “jazz singer”. Beginning in 1956, she began recording a series of albums for Verve that was released over eight years. Each one was a “song book” of a major American composer of popular tunes – Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Together this body of work stands as the encyclopedia of what we today call the Great American Songbook. No less a singer than Frank Sinatra considered the albums to be the final word on interpretations of these songs, and he refused to allow record labels to release any of his albums in a similar fashion. Perhaps the ultimate compliment came posthumously from Frank Rich, when he wrote that in the Songbook series Fitzgerald "performed a cultural transaction as extraordinary as Elvis' contemporaneous integration of white and African American soul. Here was a black woman popularizing urban songs often written by immigrant Jews to a national audience of predominantly white Christians.”
In 1958 she became the first African-American to win a Grammy award, one for the Ellington songbook and one for the Berlin songbook. Ella would eventually win 13 Grammys along with a Lifetime Achievement Award. As jazz fell out of favor in the Sixties, and her record labels either dropped her or failed, she remained a top stage attraction. She performed on a regular basis through the Seventies, including a memorable series of shows with Sinatra and Count Basie in Las Vegas and on Broadway.
Diabetes eventually took their toll on Ella, and she was repeatedly hospitalized through the Eighties. Her last public performance came at Carnegie Hall in 1991. Shortly thereafter, both her legs were eventually amputated below the knee. She died at home in California at the age of 79.
While there are hundreds of recordings I could have chosen for a Centennial Podcast tribute, here are some of my favorites, including selections from the Songbooks, live recordings and a duet with Louis Armstrong:
"(If You Can't Sing It) You'll Have to Swing It (Mr. Pagininni)"
"Summertime" with Louis Armstrong
"Mack the Knife"
"How High the Moon"
"Too Darn Hot"
"Miss Otis Regrets"
"This Time the Dream's On Me"
"Love is Here to Stay"
"Let's Do It"
"Oh Lady Be Good"
"Someone to Watch Over Me"
Tue, 18 April 2017
I’m a huge fan of the greasy, soulful sound of the Hammond B-3 organ. Few instruments have so distinct a sonic impression, and even fewer have such an iconic physical presence on stage, particularly when paired with the famous rotating Leslie speaker.
Ever since Medeski, Martin & Wood deconstructed the organ trio, there have been fewer traditional practitioners of the art making recordings. Gary Versace has recorded some fine albums, but the disbanding of Soulive and the Deep Blue Organ Trio have left a void that only a band like organissimo can continue to fill. The Michigan-based trio, composed of Jim Alfredson (Hammond B3 Organ); Larry Barris (Guitar) and Randy Marsh (Drums) are perhaps the finest example of the soul jazz sound that was a popular and critical sensation in the Fifties and Sixties.
In more than fifteen years, they have been the type of group that attracts devoted jazz fans, jam band devotees and neo-soul followers in close to equal number. Their concerts can be one-part jazz revival and two-parts dance marathon. Their recorded output has been mostly original tunes, but their latest CD goes down quite a different road.
Abbey Road, if you will.
B3tles - A Soulful Tribute To The Fab Four is not just a great organ trio record, but perhaps the finest Beatles tribute album by a jazz artist since George Benson’s The Other Side of Abbey Road in 1970. In the great tradition of jazz arrangers and improvisers, the memorable melodies of John, Paul, George and Ringo are always there, but the tunes are often refashioned by using different time signatures and styles. “Can’t Buy Me Love” is a blues shuffle, “Taxman” is taken at 7/8 and “All You Need is Love” swings between 5/4 and ¾.
I spoke with of Jim Alfredson about the new CD, which was recorded in his home studio, and how they chose from the Beatles catalogue, their process for innovation, and even what saxophone player – living or dead – with whom he would most want to perform. Hint – he made a number of recordings with a famous female Hammond B-3 player.
Music selections include “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Within You Without You” and “Taxman.”
Direct download: Podcast_570_-_A_Conversation_with_Jim_Alfredson_of_Organissimo.mp3
Category:podcast -- posted at: 12:00pm EDT
Mon, 17 April 2017
This is music for the ages, and a story for the ages as well.
Trumpet great Wallace Roney and his orchestra pay tribute to Newark jazz legend Wayne Shorter with the first full performance of Universe, a long-lost composition originally created for Miles Davis by Shorter. Wallace has termed hearing composition to be like finding missing gospels in the Dead Sea Scrolls, so important is the music as both an historical and a living piece of art.
Roney, of course, is the sole trumpet player that Miles Davis chose to mentor, and who joined and supported the legend on stage at his final performances in Montreux. When the members of Miles’ Second Great Quintet – Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams – wanted to tour in honor of their fallen leader, it was Roney who had the imposing task of taking the trumpet sear.
Since then he has established himself as one of the finest players around, as well as a solid composer, and a great bandleader. His current group, featuring Buster Williams (bass), Lenny White (drums) and Patrice Rushen (keyboards and piano) is among the tightest bands around.
I’ve been friendly with Wallace for a number of years now, since the late Bob Belden introduced us. During that time, and for a number of years before, Wallace has sought to bring Universe to the stage, and make a permanent recording, He seems finally ready to present both.
The story of how Universe came to be, how Wayne Shorter determined that only Roney could do it justice, and the importance of the piece are the core of Podcast 569. The story is classic, and its supplemented with Wallace performing with Shorter, Hancock, Carter and Williams on the Quintet classic “Pinocchio”, Roney and his larger ensemble performing an unreleased take of one of the parts from Davis’ Aura, and “Air Dancing” from the latest Roney album, A Place in Time.
Direct download: Podcast_569_-_A_Conversation_with_Wallace_Roney.mp3
Category:podcast -- posted at: 3:38pm EDT
Sun, 16 April 2017
The song of the day is Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade", performed by Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine and released on their 1957 album Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine Sing the Best of Irving Berlin. Although Vaughan had made many recordings with Eckstine, this was their only album together.
Writing a song about celebrating a Christian holiday was not an anomaly for the Jewish composer Berlin. Born in 1888 into a Russian Jewish family who came to New York City to escape religious persecution when he was five years old, Irving Berlin quickly shed his religious roots and fell in love with America. He became an American citizen when he was 29. "Patriotism was Irving Berlin's true religion," writes biographer Laurence Bergreen in As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (1990).
Irving Berlin was "not a religious person," according to his daughter Mary Ellin. Relating the story of Irving's marriage to Ellin Mackay in 1926, whose devout father had a deep reluctance to welcome a "lower-class" Jew into the wealthy Catholic family.
Once they had children, Mrs. Berlin did try to keep up a minimal appearance of religious tradition. Mary Ellin writes that her unbelieving parents "had their first bad fight when my mother suggested raising me as a Catholic . . . ."
The Berlins had three daughters. "Both our parents," Mary Ellin recalls, "would pass down to their children the moral and ethical values common to all great religions; give us a sense of what was right and what was wrong; raise us not to be good Jews or good Catholics or good whatever else you might care to cite, but to be good (or try to be) human beings. . . . When we grew up, she said, we would be free to choose--if we knew what was best for us, the religion of our husband. . . . It wouldn't quite work out, when we 'grew up,' as my mother hoped. All three of us would share our father's agnosticism and sidestep our husband's faiths."
The man who wrote "White Christmas" actually hated Christmas. "Many years later," Mary Ellin writes, "when Christmas was celebrated irregularly in my parents' house, if at all, my mother said, almost casually, 'Oh, you know, I hated Christmas, we both hated Christmas. We only did it for you children.' "
Christmas, for Irving Berlin, was not a religious holiday: it was an American holiday. He simply needed a melody in 1940 for a show called Holiday Inn, an escapist "American way of life" musical (when all hell was breaking loose in Europe) which called for a song for each holiday. The words to "White Christmas" are not about the birth of a savior-god: they are about winter, the real reason for the season.
Read more about Irving Berlin, religion and patriotism here.
Category:general -- posted at: 9:00am EDT
Fri, 14 April 2017
n keeping with the theme of presenting spiritual music performed by jazz artists this week, here is "Crucifixion", a traditional spiritual with a copyright credited to its arranger, Jester Hairston.
Hairston (1901-2000) was a prolific composer and arranger of African-American music. In addiiton to dozens of arrangments still in use today, he composed what is now considered a Christmas standard, "Mary's Boy Child" in 1956. Seven years later, he penned the universally known "Amen" for Sidney Poitier's film "Lilies of the Valley". That song has gone on to be recorded by hundred of artists, most notably the Impressions in 1964. It's worth pointing out that an up-tempo version of the song, "Amen, Brother" by the Winstons in 1969 had six seconds of its drum solo sampled as what is referred to as the "Amen Break", a sample credited with launching the drum and bass movement, and included in rock, hip-hop and soul tracks for several decades.
Click here to listen to David Murray's version of the venerable tune, from the 1988 Spirituals album. Murray recorded this pensive, rather straight ahead (for Murray) version with a quartet including Murray on sax, Dave Burrell on piano, Fred Hopkins on bass, and Ralph Peterson, Jr. on drums.
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm EDT
Thu, 13 April 2017
The fine blog Any Major Dude with Half a Heart (dig that Steely Dan reference) has always gone deep into the crates for goodies, usually of the soul variety. For Holy Thursday, celebrated by Catholics around the world, he has a real winner. Visit his page for the late David Axelrod's "Holy Thursday". As he said on his blog:
Well, it is Holy Thursday, and while this orchestral jazz track might not feed your pieties, it should at least get your toes tapping. That does not mean that the title is irreverent. Axelrod, son of a leftist activist who grew up in a predominantly black neighbourhood, wrote and recorded several musical works referencing religion. In 1971 he arranged a jazz-rock interpretation of Handel’s Messiah and in 1993 he titled a work on the Holocaust a “requiem”. I have read that Holy Thursday also featured in Grand Theft Auto V, a game I’ve never played but the soundtracks of which seem quite excellent.
Axelrod has had a massive influence on jazz, in particular fusion. He produced legends such as Lou Rawls and Cannonball Adderley (including his big hit Mercy, Mercy, Mercy), as well as avant gardists The Electric Prunes.
For another posting I did on this tune, click here.
Category:general -- posted at: 10:00am EDT
Mon, 10 April 2017
One of my favorite holidays is the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover As the first Seder is tonight, celebrating the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of the prophet Moses, I've gone into the category of music that was called "Negro Spirituals" when I was in school, and picked "Go Down Moses"
Versions of the song seem to go back to 1862, when it was called "Oh! Let My People Go (The Song of the Contrabands)". The openign verse was published by the Jubilee Singers in 1872. It's easy to see the coded message in the lyrics - "Israel" in the lyrics stands in for African-Americans oppressed by slavery and recism, and "Egypt" as their oppressors. The seminal recording of the song is likely Paul Robeson's version from 1958, which became a rallying cry for those fighting for civil rights in the American South.
Click here to listen to Louis Armstrong's version of the spiritual, taken from his Louis and the Good Book album. Armstrong recorded the song in February 1959 with Sy Oliver's Orchestra. Armstrong had jsut finished his popular Porgy & Bess album with Ella Fitzgerald, and entered the studio to record a series of spirituals and religious-tinged music. Among those in the band were Trummy Young on trombone, Hank D'Amico and Nicky Tagg on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano and Barrett Deems on drums.
In Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout quotes an outspoken Armstrong as being a great friend of the Jewish people, who he felt gave him a break in his youth when his fellow African-Americans would not. He wore a Star of David around his neck for most of his life.
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm EDT
Sun, 9 April 2017
The Spring is truly the season of spiritual awakening and celebration. Holy week for those of the Christian faith is underway, as today is Palm Sunday. The oldest of Jewish celebrations, Passover, begins with the first seder tomorrow night. The festival of Vaisaki, celebrated by Hindus is this week, just as Theravada, the New Year festival for Theravada Buddhists, is celebrated.Buddhists celebrated the birth of the Buddha in Japan last week, as their Water holidays follow this week. Soon will begin the Baha'i festival of Ridvan, and Pagan/Wiccan followers commemorate the end of the Celtic Tree Month Alder and beginning of the Celtic Tree Month of Willow.
It’s a blessing that these festivals of many faiths all come in the early Spring , reminding us of the great similarities and wonderful differences that make up these faiths. Perhaps this year, more than any other in the six decades I have been alive, the world needs to find that commonality of spirit. In order to celebrate this season of spirituality, I offer my annual podcast of jazz with a spiritual strain to bring us together in a universal language.
Podcast 568 is an hour of music, including:
Kenny Barron Trio - "Prayer"
Jack DeJohnette, John Patitucci & Danilo Perez - "Earth Prayer"
Mahavishnu Orchestra - "Hymn to Him"
Rene Marie - "Blessings
Eric Revis Trio - "Prayer"
Fri, 31 March 2017
Singer Marilyn Scott carefully resists being defined by easy labels. She is thrown into the Smooth or Contemporary Jazz category because she works closely with West Coast collaborators Bob Mintzer, Russ Ferrante and Jimmy Haslip (Yellowjackets). By the same token, she is a strong interpreter of the Great American Songbook, and not afraid to thrown in a Bob Dylan or Peter Gabriel tune for good measure, putting her squarely in Straight Ahead mode. And she doesn’t just sing – her albums are dotted with her original compositions as well.
Standard Blue, her latest CD, is her first in almost ten years, other than her fine Christmas release in 2014. Her voice is as entrancing as ever, and Ferrante’s arrangements of blues based tunes are always intriguing. From lesser recorded vocal versions of the Strayhorn-Ellington “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” to their little heard “Day Dreaming” to a raucous “The Joint is Jumping” that closes the album, Marilyn and her crack band never fail to deliver in the true jazz tradition.
Podcast 566 is my conversation with Marilyn, as we talk about song selection, and her many collaborators on Standard Blue including Michael Landau on guitar, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Minter’s turn on the bass clarinet. Song selections include “The Joint is Jumping”, “Day Dreaming”, “I Wouldn’t Change It” and Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from 2006’s Innocent of Nothin
Direct download: Podcast_566_-_A_Conversation_with_Marilyn_Scott.mp3
Category:podcasts -- posted at: 12:00pm EDT
Fri, 24 March 2017
It shouldn’t take Women’s History Month for us to appreciate and enjoy the music of female jazz musicians. Particularly in the last two decades, women have moved from “female performer” to “performer” in their own right, as both leaders and side players.
Women were there at the birth of jazz, and singers like Bessie Smith, and pianists like Lil Hardin Armstrong (who wrote “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”) and Lovie Austin were leaders in their own right before the end of the Roaring Twenties. Valaida Snow was a top trumpet player during this time.
During WWII, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm were way more than a novelty act, playing hot jazz and swing as well as any man. The names of Anna Mae Winburn, Closa Bryant, Carline Ray Russell (mother of singer Catherine Russell) and more deserve to be held in far higher esteem than they are today. Check out the film “International Sweethearts of Rhythm” to see and hear them in their prime.
The great female singers of jazz’s gold age – Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald – helped define the Great American Songbook, just as Nina Simone, Betty Carter and Shirley Horn helped deconstruct it. Melba Williams was a first-call trombonist for Randy Weston and Dizzy Gillespie. The likes of Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, and Shirley Scott, and later Carla Bley and Alice Coltrane showed that women could swing, but also be adventurous and part of the avant-garde.
It would be foolish to think that sexism does not exist in the world of jazz, just as racism and homophobia are still issues preventing artists from taking the bandstand and doing their best. But violinist Regina Carter; bassists Linda Oh and Esperanza Spalding; pianists Kris Davis, Helen Sung, Hiromi and Toshiko Akiyoshi; drummers Terri Lynn Carrington, Cindy Blackman Santana and Alison Miller; guitarist Mary Halvorsen, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (pictured); her sister trombonist Christine Jensen; and big band leader Maria Schneider are all at, or near the top of their game today. Singers like Diana Krall and Karen Allyson are accomplished pianists as well as vocalists. Stacey Kent plays guitar on her many recordings. Cassandra Wilson plays any number of instruments in her various bands.
Apologies to all those who I failed to mention. Podcast 565 features an hour plus of music from some of my favorite women in jazz – enjoy!
Kris Davis Trio – “Waiting for You to Grow”
Cassandra Wilson – “Billie’s Blues”
Linda Oh – “Shutterspeed Dreams”
Rene Marie – “Stronger Than You Think”
Ingrid Jensen – “Ninety-One”
Mary Halverson Octet – “Spirit Splitter (no. 54)
Helen Sung - “Alphabet Street”
Cyrille Aimee – “There’s a Lull in My Life”
Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra – “Blue Yonder”
Marilyn Crispell and Gerry Hemingway – “Table of Changes”
Yelena Eckemoff – “Rising From Within”
Esperanza Spalding – “Unconditional Love (Alternate Version)”