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"
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)”
Fri, 17 March 2017
Near the top of the list entitled “Why haven’t I talked to these musicians?” is the name of Lisa Hilton. A pianist and composer whose classical background has influenced her very modern approach to the keyboard, she has continued to produce a series of top-notch group CDs. With over twenty CDs released as a leader, she never fails gather some of the finest talent around to complete her musical vision.
2016 saw Lisa releasing two CDs – Nocturnal, a quintet album, and Day & Night, a solo recording. Nocturnal is a joy to hear, as she plays with and off a killer band – Gregg August on bass, Antonio Sanchez on drums, J.D. Allen on sax and Terell Stafford on trumpet. The band breathes life into standards like “Willow Weep for Me’, while Hilton originals like “Whirlywind” and “Seduction” (which also appears in a reimagined version on Day & Night) give the band a strong melodic base from which to stretch out. Ms. Hilton has been known to throw a curveball or two in her song selection, and here the surprise is the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”
Day & Night allows Lisa to keep the spotlight for herself, and she does not disappoint. She has both the chops and soul to keep you constantly listening. The album has nine originals, along with a take on Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” that erases any thoughts of how that song might be played from your memory. It’s that good.
I spoke with Lisa about the two albums, as well as her philanthropic projects of helping blind students at the Perkins School of the Blind, Camp Bloomfield for the blind in California, and at the adaptive music lab for visually impaired musicians at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Musical selections from Day & Night include “Begin the Beguine” and “Caffeinated Culture”, and selections from Nocturnal include “Seduction” and “Where is My Mind?”
Tue, 14 February 2017
OK, what's the most popular symbol of Valentine's Day?
Uh - Cupid?
Well....no. Try again.
And so Podcast 563 is our annual Valentine's Day mixtape, and this year the theme is - hearts. Each song has "heart" in the title, and it's a pretty spiffy group of tunes if I do say so myself.
Feel free to download and burn this one to a CD for that last minute Valentine's Day gift for your sweetie. Forgot a gift? Problem solved. You're welcome.
Podcast 563 features:
John Pizzarelli - "Oh How My Heart Beats for You"
Art Farmer & Tommy Flanagan - "My Heart Skips a Beat"
Bob Belden Ensemble - "Straight to My Heart"
Michael Franks - "Heart Like an Open Book"
Bob James - "I Feel a Song (in My Heart)"
Marquis Hill - "My Foolish Heart"
Keith Jarrett - "My Foolish Heart"
Sonny Clark "With a Song in My Heart"
McCoy Tyner - "You Taught My Heart to Sing"
Stacey Kent - "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart"
Lester Young and Nat King Cole - "Peg O' My Heart"
Kenny Dorham - "My Heart Stood Still"
Mon, 13 February 2017
Seven-time Grammy award winning singer Al Jarreau died on Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He had recently been ill, and had cancelled his touring plans. Jarreau was 76 years old.
Jarreau is one of the few artists to have won Grammys in three separate categories — jazz, pop and R&B. He is ability to perform the most difficult vocalese stylings could easily slide into his more mainstream songs, making him the type of performer who attracts fans to jazz. He was one of the few jazz musicians to perform on the “We Are the World” single for Live Aid.
Jarreau earned a B.S. in Psychology and a Masters’ Degree in Vocational Rehabilitation, before moving to music full time in 1969. He quickly developed a strong following, following the likes of Jon Hendricks with his vocalese. It was not until a 1976 performance on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, however that he broke through to a wider audience; releasing his hit album We Got By that next week. He recorded ten albums for Warner Brothers/Reprise, including the Grammy winning All Fly Home, Breakin’ Away and Heaven and Earth. His song “Moonlighting” was the theme for the popular television series starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis.
He had been in declining health since 2010, canceling shows due to respiratory illness and exhaustion. He had not recorded an album since 2014’s tribute to his long-time collaborator and friend George Duke, My Old Friend: Celebrating George Duke.
Podcast 564 is my tribute to Al, with almost an hour of his tunes, showing his R&B and jazz chops, and including:
“My Favorite Things”
“Let’s Stay Together”
“We’re in this Love Together”
“My Foolish Heart”
“Churchyheart (Backyard Ritual)”
“Spain (I Can Recall)”
“Compared to What”
“Agua de Berber”
Fri, 10 February 2017
It’s always a pleasure to speak with saxophonist Miguel Zenón, a musician who has impeccable academic, bandstand and compositional credentials. One of an increasing number of jazz musicians who have been awarded a Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowship, the latter more commonly known as the "Genius Grant”, Miguel’s music continues to grow and expand its horizons.
For example, his last CD, Identities are Changeable was the recorded version of multimedia presentation about the Puerto Rican immigrant community in the United States. All the music on the album was written around a series of interviews with several individuals, all of them New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent. The narrative created by these conversations gave birth to all the compositions on the record, with audio excerpts from the interviews weaving in and out each piece, and then executed by an expanded ensemble. Nominated for a Grammy, it showed Zenón at his most innovative.
Tipico is a return to the quartet sound that first brought Miguel to the world’s attention. His long-time collaborators - Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass) and Henry Cole (drums) - play a key part in the album, with Perdomo in particular supplying some stunning solos.
Zenón is on the road with the Quartet now, and will also be seen with the ever-entertaining SFJAZZ Collective soon. A founding member of the group, their repertory performances are focused on music associated with or inspired by Miles Davis for the Spring tour. A CD will be released shortly.
Podcast 562 is my conversation with Miguel, where we discuss how the new CD came to be, how the SFJAZZ Collective stays fresh, and how his continued philanthropic efforts in his native Puerto Rico, Caravana Cultural , is progressing. Musical selections from Tipico include “Academia”, “Sangre de mi Sangre” and “Entre las Raises”.
Direct download: Podcast_562_-__A_Conversation_with_Miguel_Zenon.mp3
Category:podcasts -- posted at: 12:00pm EDT
Thu, 9 February 2017
I first heard Troy Roberts when he appeared in auspicious company at the first International Jazz Day at the United Nations in New York in 2012. There shared the stage with the likes of Wayne Shorter, Richard Bona, Vinnie Colaiuta and Zakir Hussein and more than held his own.
Since then, the West Australia-born, saxophonist has won 3 consecutive DownBeat Jazz Soloist Awards, a Grammy Nomination medal, and become a regular member of both the Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts Quartet and Watts’ ‘Blue 5’, as well as a key part of Joey DeFrancesco’s new quartet, ‘The People’. His 7th record as a leader, Tales & Tones (Inner Circle Music) builds on his past two stellar releases, and matches him with his long-time collaborator Silvano Monasterios on piano, as well as the one-two punch from Wynton and Branford Marsalis bands, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Watts.
Roberts is capable of playing any number of styles at a high level. His two albums with his Nu-Jive 5 showed he could hit classic R&B and soul sounds, and Tales & Tones comes across as something of a classic quartet album. Given his solid rhythm section, Troy wisely intersperses his solos – some of which, like on “Mr. Pinonoock,” are soaring and inspiring – with band play, and Monasterios’ restrained playing creates mood and color that Hurst and Watts bring out with their flourishes. Not that Silvano can’t cook – check out the frenetic playing on “Boozy Bluesy” that ends the album.
Podcast 561 is my conversation with Troy Roberts, and we discuss how a nice boy from Perth got into jazz, how Tales & Tones came to be, and how he fits his own work in with the many sideman gigs he takes. Musical selections from Tales & Tones include "Pickapoppy", "Boozy Bluesy" and "Take the A Train".
Direct download: Podcast_561_-_A_Conversation_with_Troy_Roberts.mp3
Category:podcasts -- posted at: 12:00pm EDT
Sat, 4 February 2017
Do we have a more diverse singer today than Theo Bleckmann? The German born singer and composer’s recordings range from albums of Las Vegas standards, Weimar art songs, newly-arranged songs by Charles Ives (with jazz/rock collective Kneebody); and his acclaimed Hello Earth - the Music of Kate Bush. You may also have heard Bleckmann on jazz recordings by Ambrose Akinmusire and Julia Hülsmann, but also with Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson and Michael Tilson Thomas. Yet, he considers himself first and foremost a jazz singer.
His newly formed Elegy Quintet composed of Snai Maestro [piano], Chris Tordini [bass], John Hollenbeck [drums] and Ben Monder [guitar] has just their new CD, appropriately entitled Elegy. As with so many projects on the label, ECM label head and founder, Manfred Eicher, was the producer. In so many ways, Theo is the consummate ECM vocalist – he uses spacing with great dexterity, allowing silence and a slow turn of a phrase to be key components of his sound. Clearly, he is well suited for a label that advertises their music is “the most beautiful sound next to silence”. Whether turning Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” on its head or supplying wordless vocals for “Fields”, Bleckmann’s voice commands your attention at all times.
Podcast 560 is my conversation with Theo, where we discuss his early interest in music, how jazz compares to classical and pop music in his approach, and what it was like to record with the legendary Eicher on projects. Musical selections from Elegy include “Comedy Tonight”, the title track and “To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple.”
Direct download: Podcast_560_-__A_Conversation_with_Theo_Bleckmann.mp3
Category:podcasts -- posted at: 12:00pm EDT