Live Music: The Great American Songbook is Alive and Well at Catalina Bar & Grill with Barbara Morrison, Stephanie Haynes and Jackie Ryan

July 3, 2015
Roger Crane

Roger Crane

 By Roger Crane

Los Angeles.  In 2013 jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett, who issued a series of albums that featured the standards, was asked “What do standards mean to you and why have you recorded so many?” Jarrett replied, “First of all, they are anything but standard by today’s standards. But they are exceptional.” These exceptional songs as Jarrett observed “came rushing in from the 1920s through the early 1950s” but, most intensely in a 2-decade span, 1925 – 1945. The cream of the standards are said to make up the Great American Songbook (GAS). Although pervasive, the origin of this term is uncertain. It was first used as a title of a live 1972 Atlantic album by singer Carmen McRae. In that same year, composer and musicologist Alec Wilder published a successful book titled American Popular Song (Oxford Press), perhaps the first book to definitively assess the standards as worthy of serious discussion.

Catalina Popescu

Catalina Popescu

On last Tuesday night at Catalina Popescu’s long-running Hollywood jazz venue, Catalina’s Bar and Grill, over twenty of those exceptional GAS songs were performed by three very talented vocalists.

Barbara Morrison

Barbara Morrison

 

The delightful Barbara Morrison kicked off the show with a series of Harold Arlen songs, beginning with his spare, hymn-like “My Shining Hour.” She sang “Stormy Weather” accompanied beautifully by only John Clayton’s bass. She closed with another Arlen ballad, the remarkable ”Last Night When We Were Young,” which Frank Sinatra liked so much he recorded it twice. In the mix, of course, Morrison included some swinging Arlen tunes such as “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” demonstrating all the vivacious flare needed to make an audience happy. She is bottled sunshine, a visual delight as well as aural and. if you don’t find yourself smiling in her presence – well, check your pulse.

Stephanie Haynes

Stephanie Haynes

I have often thought of Stephanie Haynes as a well-kept secret and she is too talented to be so overlooked. She has graced Southern Californians with her warm, luxuriant alto for many decades, but has not recorded half – or even a third – as often as her talents dictate. Haynes chose the songs of composer Harry Warren, who probably wrote more well-known songs than either Gershwin or Kern. But, although many listeners know his songs, they do not know his name. Haynes’ Catalina segment was an impressive  demonstration of how the familiar can be made fresh and how the arcane can appear familiar. For example she sang the lesser-known “Friendly Star” (from the movie Summer Stock) as a waltz, although it was written in four. “Summer Night” (from the movie Sing Me a Love Song) is perhaps even more neglected but Haynes’ rendition makes one wonder why this song, one of Warren’s more pure and beautiful melodies, never became a standard. It deserves much more recognition. Although Fats Waller had fun with Warren’s “Sweet and Slow,” the song is mostly ignored. Thankfully, Haynes sang it both sweet and slow as dictated by Al Dubin’s sexy lyrics. Many other Warren songs were performed of course, including “This Is Always,” and each was a gem. Haynes was in superb voice and, once again – as she does each time she performs – proved that she is one of the finest jazz singers.

Jackie Ryan

Jackie Ryan

Jackie Ryan lives in the Bay area but, on occasion, blesses Angelinos with her deep, honey-rich contralto. For the show’s third and final segment, she selected songs written by or associated with Duke Ellington. Ryan is a master of ballads and mesmerized the Catalina patrons with that famous song about the weary diva “Sophisticated Lady,” performing it in a medley with Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” Ryan’s smoky voice and flexibility make her a natural fit for torch songs but she is the complete singer and can handle rhythm tunes with ease and she also romped at a swinging beat on such tunes as “Duke’s Place.” Thankfully, Ryan introduced the audience to two lesser known Ducal songs, “Kissing Bug” and the even more obscure “You Better Know It,” two songs kept alive by such vocalists as Nina Simone and June Christy.

Morrison, Haynes and Ryan were given sympathetic support by their musical director Doug McDonald. In addition to his own guitar work, the band included pianist Josh Nelson, bassist John Clayton, and Paul Kreibich at the drum set. The arrangements and accompaniment were, to fall back on a cliché, exemplary. They were also apposite and unobtrusive and, since this was a night to focus on the song, let the songs and the singers take center stage as they should. Collectively, the Great

American Songbook constitutes one of the great cultural achievements of the twentieth century. A warm thanks to Merle Kreibich for continuing to present the very best in jazz and thanks to the Catalina staff and the patrons for their courtesy and attentiveness. The room was full and for a Great American Songbook event that was encouraging. The GAS flame was alive and burning bright for one stellar night in Hollywood.

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Photos Bob Barry/Jazzography

 


Roger Crane the Song Scout: Great Ballads

July 2, 2015

Roger Crane the Song Scout

By Roger Crane

 

Fellow Music Fans….

I’m an adagio-kind of guy. I love ballads – jazz ballads, country ballads, Latin ballads, any ballads. In particular I seek the great recordings, meaning the 3-way combination of…

1 – Fine Song 2 – Fine Singer 3 – Fine Arrangement/Accompaniment

For example, you can find many such “triple threats” on the various Sinatra recordings from his Capitol years. Here is a beautiful song from those recordings which I often return to.

THE SONG – “Lonely Town”- By Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, from the 1944 Broadway show, On the Town

THE SINGER – Frank Sinatra

THE ARRANGER/CONDUCTOR – Gordon Jenkins

COMMENTS

I am not alone in my affection for this recording. Sinatra, in a 1984 interview chose it as “the best record I ever made.” One of the key components of Jenkins’ chart is his use of a haunting French horn introduction by Vince DeRosa (link below). I enjoy much of Bernstein’s music but not a particular fan of some songs (e.g., finding “Somewhere” boring with its pretentious Puccini high notes).

But “Lonely Town” (along with “Lucky to Be Me” and “Some Other Time” from the same show) is a superior song. It is a favorite of jazz groups, probably due to its subtle, constant modulation from minor to major and its unusual chords. Vocally, it is demanding, requiring a lot of voice and exact intonation. Maybe that is why the mediocre singers leave it alone. Sinatra is up to it and sings with vulnerability and is at ease with the slow tempo.

“Lonely Town” is on Sinatra’s 1957 Capitol recording titled Where Are You, which was his first recording in stereo. It is perfection or, if that is too reverent, let’s say “perfectly wonderful.”

And here’s another version of the song in a lovely piano rendition by Bill Charlap and his trio
(bassist, Peter Washington, drummer Kenny Washington).

Best to you all.  Comments welcomed.

Roger, the Benevolent Guardian of Song  (and an eager vendor of opinions)


Doc Wendell’s Prescription For Hard-Bop: Gene Ammons All-Stars – “The Happy Blues” (Prestige)

July 1, 2015

Devon “Doc” Wendell

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

“Blowing sessions” are a pivotal aspect of jazz history. You get a bunch of musicians together to jam, have fun and show off their chops. Sometimes it’s about competing and the actual compositions are really not important. Blowing over a simple blues progression is all that is needed.

At Prestige records, producer Bob Weinstock designated Fridays as “session day.” Every Friday he would hire some of the finest players to form an all-star group to jam over some standards and blues. On Friday, April 23, 1956, Weinstock brought the great Chicago tenor sax giant Gene Ammons into the studio with Jackie McLean on alto saxophone, Art Farmer on trumpet, Duke Jordan on piano, Addison Farmer on bass, Arthur Taylor on drums, and Candido on percussion.

Gene Ammons Happy Blues CDThe band kicks off with the title track, “The Happy Blues,” which is a slow blues progression. Jackie McLean’s solo is adventurous, frenetic, and raw. McLean plays slightly behind the beat like Dexter Gordon did on tenor. Art Farmer’s lyricism on the trumpet is sweet and melodic as a great singer. And then you have Gene Ammons with that fat, round, bluesy tone that makes any note he plays swing beautifully. Lester Young’s influence can be heard in Ammons’ phrasing on this 12 bar blues.

“The Great Lie” is loosely based on the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm” (These had become standard chord changes for jazz musicians to jam over since the ‘30s.) Drumer Art Taylor’s subtle groove is always perfect behind anyone and he just locks right in with Addison Farmer, Candido, and Duke Jordan. This tune features one of my favorite solos by Art Farmer during this period. Every note is clean, precise, and melodic. McLean’s solo picks up where Farmer’s left off, repeating some of the same lines on alto sax. Ammons honks and swings with that one of a kind rough pitched Chicago tenor sound.

Ammons shines the most on the tender ballad “Can’t We Be Friends.” He takes his time and makes every bent note count. His solo unravels beautifully and tells a story. That tone just caresses every note with love and soul. This is the performance of a true master who understands his instrument and sound intimately. Art Farmer’s muted trumpet solo swings with dexterity and grace.

The album finishes with the up-tempo “Madhouse,” based on the changes to “What Is This Thing Called Love?” It is evident that these tremendous musicians are having a blast and not worrying about time or anything else. Ammons, Farmer, and McLean trade fours and then twos. Candido takes a long but thoughtful conga solo and quickly locks back in with Taylor and Addison Farmer. This is joyful music.

If you don’t think jazz is about fun and feeling good, pick up The Happy Blues. This album is just one of countless examples of why jazz makes life so much better.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


Record Rack: Halie Loren and The Monks of Norcia

June 30, 2015

Brian Arsenault

by Brian Arsenault

Soul Music
Secular and Sacred or
Sacred and Sublime

Halie Loren: Butterfly Blue (Justin Time Records)

Halie Loren glides in flight on her new album Butterfly Blue from newly composed musical poetry to the songbook of American music on the wings of a deepening and darkening musical sense, an extraordinary accompanying group of musicians and a voice to wring out all the passion, pain and promise of living. We are captives of the cages of our lives but the spirit still soars.

The new:

“Blue” by sterling guitarist Daniel Gallo, “blue like the deep sea . . . blue like a moonbeam.”     Delicate without sentimentality, painful but not maudlin. Gallo’s guitar masterfully weaves under Loren’s voice.

“Butterfly” by Loren herself, wherein I think Otis Redding held her hand. I thought he might harmonize on the chorus and perhaps he does somewhere else.

“After the Fall” again by Gallo. Paper Moons hang, funny Valentines bring a tear. Songs of life remembered, a soundtrack of a life.

The classic:
Charles Trenet’s “I Wish You Love”, sung mostly in French and the more romantic for that. Loren’s voice haunts, evokes all the lyrical romance of the tune. Matt Treder’s piano and David Larsen’s clarinet so perfect in creating the cafe sensibility in play. Mark Schneider’s bass simply perfect.
“Stormy Weather” touches the very center of that blues piece, slowed down achingly beyond any version you’ve heard before.

Billie Holiday would approve. Ellington could have arranged.
And a bit later, back to back to back, my favorite moments on the album.
A playful yet deeply felt “Our Love Is Here to Stay” with Irving Berlin’s wonderful, hopeful lyrics. Again Larsen, this time on baritone sax, would be worth the trip just on his own. And Halie’s phrasing, I think she knew Berlin in an earlier life.

She has also somehow magically visited Cole Porter. “Under My Skin” is launched by a fine instrumental intro with Treder and Schneider leading the way before Loren’s breathy vocal comes in with just a touch of Peggy Lee. All that Porter longing, the pain/pleasure of being caught with no release and maybe none wanted.

On the Loren penned “Danger in Loving You,” heard in a performance version on an earlier recording, she writes to the level of Gershwin and Porter. There’s no release here either. There is of course danger to the heart.

Halie Loren is generally termed a jazz singer and that’s true if you acknowledge that blues underlies jazz, which of course it does. Then there is soul, she has that too. Ask me to walk into a club and conjure up my singer of choice and it would be Halie Loren.

To bend a lyric in “Blue” just a bit, I love her like Sunday.

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The Monks of Norcia Benedicta: Marian chant from Norcia (De Montfort Music)

I’ve never been interested in meditation. That’s why I didn’t care that much for “Peace,” the last cut on Halie’s album. I’m generally annoyed with all that find your center, peace out stuff. I’m entitled to my tension and my anger. Wars aren’t won and great art isn’t created by navel gazing.

Monks of Norcea Benedictus CDYet if I was going to meditate it would be to the immortal Gregorian chants of these monks in Umbria (Italy). In fact, while I had it on I began to feel more peaceful, more in tune, as they say. That annoyed me so much that I almost turned it off, but the beauty of the prayerfulness held me. Many I know who still attend Mass say that changing from Latin to English diminished its spiritual power. I can now say I think they are right.

I’m made to understand that the monks are killing (forgive the word) on the classical charts, even outselling some pop stars, and I can see why. Benedicta, largely in tribute to Mary (I don’t need to say which Mary do I), seems to echo down the ages from a time of believing, we’re talking 10th century here. Perhaps that is part of the attraction in this age of unbelieving, at least in the modern West.

Wherever you fall on or off the spiritual scale, beauty so rich and full is not to be discounted. Ever. The Monks of Norcia are also renowned for their craft brews, a spirit also not to be discounted.


Live Jazz: Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band At Walt Disney Concert Hall

June 29, 2015

Norton Wright

By Norton Wright

Los Angeles, CA.  It was SHOWTIME at Disney Hall on Saturday night as Gordon Goodwin’s 18-piece Big Phat Band performed like an inextinguishable stick of dynamite, exploding number after number in its featured hour-long set marking KJazz Radio’s third annual benefit concert.
The recipient of the 2015 GRAMMY Award for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble,” this band is ignited by its larger-than-life bandleader/composer/arranger /performer, Gordon Goodwin, who doubled as a voluble, high-energy Master Of Ceremonies clearly aiming to put on an entertaining show for the sold-out audience in the elegant and spacious Disney Hall. Goodwin combined his own good-humored anecdotes about his band, about the night’s “Swinging Tribute to Count Basie,” and about the star talents in his band who, in the old, big-band tradition, stride downstage to microphones to solo.

Gordon Goodwin and The Big Phat Band

When a band has the likes of Andy Martin’s trombone, Wayne Bergeron’s trumpet, Brian Scanlon’s tenor, Bernie Dressel’s drums, and Kevin Axt’s bass, the soloing is fiery and precise. Sal Lozano’s clarinet on “Rhapsody In Blue” put the audience away, and alto saxist Eric Marienthal’s solos built beautifully from the soulful and unhurried to the electrifying and urgent.

Lee Ritenour

Lee Ritenour

An array or surprises helped shape the show. Grammy Award winning guitarist icon, Lee Ritenour, dropped in halfway into the band’s performance. His opening comments, “This band is burning!” said it all.

And he said even more, playing with incredible dexterity his newest composition titled “L.P.”, a tribute to the old, guitar master, Les Paul.

Gregg Field, the producer of The Big Phat Band’s last two recent records, sat in on drums for a couple of numbers, driving the band with a hard-swinging command and reminding us that great, jazz musicianship can also make for great jazz CD producers.

Building toward his show’s finale, Goodwin had some fun. He explained that the band was going to try a “head arrangement” and that he had no idea what riffs the woodwind section, the trombone section, and the trumpet section might have in their heads and  would choose to play behind the soloists. The musicians in each section, ham actors all!, made a big show of their supposed confusion in deciding what riff each section would undertake.

Gordon Goodwin

Gordon Goodwin

Needless to say, their selections were well chosen and the blues number proceeded, as one after another, each section kicked in its selected riff neatly dovetailing their selection with those of the other sections backing the soloists who in turn were having a wailing good time!

For the finale, Goodwin joked that the chemistry of musicians in a big band is rife with competition. As an example, the band’s entire trumpet section — Dan Forneo, Wayne Bergeron, Willie Murillo, and Dan Savant — came downstage to a set of microphones and battled each other in a cut session, with each appearing to want to outdo the others with furious fingering and stratospheric notes. The result was a display of dazzling improvisations that had the crowd on its feet. But when these trumpeters, understandably proud of their display of chops, turned to return to their section seats, they discovered that the entire woodwind section — Brian Scanlon, Kevin Garren, Adam Schroeder, Sal Lozano, and Eric Marienthal – were all playing flutes and piccolos in a riff clearly designed to outdo the trumpets. The trombone section — Craig Gosnel, Francisco Torres, Ryan Dragon, and Andy Martin – followed suit with their own bone licks challenging the trumpet section’s  show of force. The trumpeters in mock dismay returned to their seats, and the crowd in Disney Hall went wild!

The night had been more than the performance of a great band – it had been a genuine SHOW shaped by a first-class showman, Gordon Goodwin.

Sara Gazarek

Sara Gazarek

It should also be mentioned that the evening had opened with jazz songstress, Sara Gazarek and her trio, the always amazing pianist Geoff Keezer, fine bass soloist, Dave Robaire, and Dan Schnelle’s tastily discreet drums.

An emerging star, Gazarek radiates good-natured likeability. On this night, however, her ever-smiling rendition of her song selections could have benefited from a more varied and thoughtful approach. Her medley of “Bye Bye Blackbird” and the Beatles’ “Blackbird” was sung jazzily and happily. But lyrics from the former: “Pack up all my care and woe, Here I go, Singing low, Bye bye blackbird” — and  from the latter:“Blackbird singing in the dead of night, Take these broken wings and learn to fly, All your life” – suggest an interpretation with more gravitas, soul, and emotional unease than Gazarek chose to undertake.

Though Gazarek is very pretty, especially in her short-skirted dress revealing legs rivaling those of Betty Grable, such stage presence can detract from what is most important – that is, her approach to the song, her take on its lyrics, why the song is important to her. There were times on Saturday night when the ever-happy Gazarek gave the impression that she was presenting great jazz pipes and phrasing – but with little meaning.

And a final bug-a-boo for this writer. When an artist is on stage, every visual moment counts with the audience. The growing practice of singers these days to guzzle bottled water after completing a portion of a song can indeed break the mood of a piece and the audience’s emotional commitment to the singer and the song. In opera, if the diva upon completing “Un bel di” breaks out of character to gurgle a bottle of water on stage, the meaning and mood of the aria will surely be damaged.
In her performance Saturday night, Gazarek took on-stage water breaks several times to the detriment of her performance… If a singer needs water on stage, Judy Garland had a good answer: pre-position a big, water-filled wine glass on the nearby piano and use it as needed. The wine glass has a touch of class and allows the performer to drink while staying in character, perhaps even toasting her band or toasting the audience.

On stage, visual class matters.

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To read more posts by Norton Wright and view his jazz-inspired paintings, click HERE.


Doc’s Prescription For Big Band Jazz: Jimmy Heath’s “Really Big!” (Riverside)

June 28, 2015

By Devon "Doc" Wendell

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

By 1960, Jimmy Heath was known as a true bop titan on the tenor saxophone. But on Riverside’s Really Big!, recorded that year, Heath’s big band arrangements and the incredible artists who made up his orchestra (Jimmy Heath, tenor saxophone, Clark Terry, trumpet, Nat Adderley, cornet, Tom McIntosh, trombone, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, alto saxophone, Dick Berg, French horn, Pat Patrick, baritone saxophone, Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton pianos, Percy Heath, bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums) made this recording one of the most spectacularly original releases on the Riverside label. And it’s one that still holds strong today.

This is Jimmy Heath’s first leading a big band exploration consisting mostly of bluesy originals such as “Big P,” “Old Fashioned Fun,” and “Nails.” Heath’s elegantly swinging horn arrangements and sense of contrary motion make each composition special and timeless.

Heath’s love and understanding of big band jazz really shows throughout Really Big!  Solos by Heath, Terry, Nat, and “Cannonball” Adderley are burning and fit beautifully with the theme of each carefully crafted piece. The Heath brothers’ (Percy and Albert “Tootie” Heath) rhythm backing is both subtle and melodic.

“Mana’s Mood” is a stunning ballad. It stands alongside the finest big band ballads composed by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. Both Walton’s and Heath’s solos are so graceful and soulful that they bring tears to my eyes every time I hear them.

Bobby Timmons’ “Dat Dere” is a well known hard-bop classic but Heath’s fresh big band arrangement opens up more solo space for Heath and Terry and makes it hard to believe this could have been written for anything but a ten piece ensemble like this.

Although Bronislaw Kaper and Ned Washington’s “On Green Dolphin Street” has already been done by many artists in the jazz world such as Mel Torme, Miles Davis, Urbie Green, Ahmad Jamal, Jack Sheldon, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly, Heath’s rendition on this album makes you feel as if you’re hearing it for the very first time. “Tootie” and Percy’s bass and drum intro is beyond funky. Tom McIntosh’s trombone solo glides along beautifully with Tommy Flanagan’s slick and precise piano comping. “Cannonball” Adderley’s alto sax solo cooks with true dynamics and blues driven soul.

Not much in life swings harder than the up-tempo “The Picture Of Heath.” If you’re not yet into big band jazz, this piece would be a perfect introduction. Clark Terry, Tom McIntosh, and Nat Adderley briefly trade eights before Cedar Walton’s harmonically brilliant piano solo. This composition is a highlight of Heath’s entire career. Jimmy Heath made this album during a time in which big band jazz was being pushed under the rug. For the most part hard-bop, modal jazz, and the beginnings of avant-garde jazz were at the center of attention of the jazz buying public and press. This means Heath and his ten piece orchestra made this record out of sheer love and that love is felt all the way through Really Big!.

Grab this one quick if you don’t already have a copy.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.


An Appreciation: Gunther Schuller

June 24, 2015

By Don Heckman

I was so sorry to hear that Gunther Schuller had passed away on Sunday. A composer, teacher, world-class French Horn player, journalist, author, and much more, he was a true Renaissance man who had a powerful effect on music, worldwide, from the last part of the 20th century and well into the new millennium.

Neither jazz nor classical music will ever be as limited as they were before Gunther found the common ground between both musics in a still-compelling genre he called Third Stream.

I was fortunate enough to have had Gunther as a teacher, a mentor and a friend. And his impact upon my career as a music journalist and a composer will continue to be present in all my creative work.

I’m sure you’re making some heavenly sounds where you are now, Gunther. R.I.P.


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