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.


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.


Doc’s Prescription For Bop: Sonny Stitt/BudPowell/J.J. Johnson (Prestige)

June 22, 2015

 

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

This album consists of three separate recording sessions between 1949-1950 lead by the great Sonny Stitt on tenor saxophone. The first two sessions from 1949 feature Stitt with Bebop piano master Bud Powell, with Curly Russell on bass and Max roach on drums

This is bop at its finest. Stitt consistently swings hard. Powell is in great form, and the rhythm section cooks. “Bud’s Blues” is phenomenal and the chemistry between Stitt and Powell on this track alone makes this an essential purchase.

Jazz fans will immediately recognize “Sonnyside” as being a rendition of Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity.” The renaming was most likely done by Bob Weinstock or someone at Prestige rather than the musicians. By this time, Stitt had found his own voice as a musician and had for the most part escaped Bird’s dominating influence from his earlier years with Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

The second half of the album is comprised of a session in 1950 in which Stitt is joined by Trombonist J.J. Johnson, with John Lewis on piano, Nelson Boyd on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Johnson’s blues flavored lyricism and deep understanding of the bebop language matches perfectly with Stitt’s hard hitting, virtuosic tenor lines. Lewis’ thoughtfully melodic accompaniment and the burning rhythm section of Boyd and Roach on J.J. Johnson’s originals — “Elora” “Teapot” and “Blue Mode” – make clear that bebop was still going strong in 1950 when many thought the music was starting to fade.

This is timeless music played by some of the greatest pioneers in jazz history. Do not wait until this goes out of print.

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

 

 


CD Review: The Julia Hulsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann — “A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America”

April 2, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

In the largely forgotten film Eddie and the Cruisers, Eddie turns to his lyricist with index and middle fingers pressed together and overlapping and says: “Words and music, words and music” to express the interlinking of a song and its words. The film doesn’t really earn the line but this long titled album does.

A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America by the Julia Hulsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann singing is a brave attempt to match the words of poets and authors from Bertold Brecht to Walt Whitman, from Maxwell Anderson to Ogden Nash and, perhaps most delightfully, the poet Langston Hughes to music mostly by Kurt Weill.

Theo Bleckmann and Julia Hulsmann

Some is already classic and part of the American jazz/pop songbook and is well handled here:

“Mack the Knife” is of course present, though the lyrics used herein are even more gruesome than most of what Bobby Darin sang.

We Americans have a cultural memory of monotone sentimentalist Jimmy Durante’s version of “September Song” with all its poignancy.

“Speak Low” may be less familiar, but the Nash lyrics touch deep:

         Speak low when you speak love

Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon

Those last two love songs actually written about mature people, even older people, certainly no longer in the first blush of youth. Rare that, at least before some of Sinatra’s best work.

These are among the successes of the album — words and music blending seamlessly, pleasingly. In other places, though the music seems overwhelmed by the words. Halting, dragging, squeezed uncomfortably into place.

The band’s work on three Walt Whitman poems comes to mind in this regard. These aren’t Kurt Weill songs after all and they’re not quite up to it.

Ira Gershwin’s “This is New” is, though. Gershwin listened to Brecht’s lyrics no doubt, “I’m through with a shadowy past.” Is love confusion; if so also bliss.

An underrealized aspect of the album is Theo Bleckmann’s singing. He has the pipes but almost everywhere he is so understated, his singing at times almost bordering on a narration of the poetry rather than a sung interpretation.

That’s not the case on the album’s last song “Great Big Sky,” the marvelous Langston Hughes affirmation of what it is to be a man, to be human. Bleckmann seems to let himself go here, where so often he is so restrained on the album; and the result is a soaring success.

          It’s a great big sky
         And there’s room enough for all,
         Underneath the great big sky
        Where the earth’s a little ball
        And a man ain’t much
        And yet a man is all
        That stands up tall
        Between the earth and God, beneath the great big sky

The redoubtable Manfred Eicher produced the album, which is replete with his silences between notes. Pianist Julia Hulsmann is so sensitive to Weill’s nuances and so precise. Trumpeter and flugelhorn player Tom Arthurs supports the vocals almost like another singer. The rhythm section of Marc Muellbaurer and Heinrich Kobberling is excellent as well, though as with other European jazz bands I sometimes think the drummer is truly moving to his own beat.

As I said at the start, this is a brave work. Words and music, words and music.

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Julia Hulsmann and Theo Bleckmann discuss — in German — the making of “A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America” and perform a few samples from the album

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Julia Hülsmann is bringing her group,  (without Tom Arthurs) to the U.S. to plaand playing release concerts with Theo Bleckmann:

           –  April 16-17 – New York, NY at Neue Gallerie Kurt Weill,

           –  April 18 – Baltimore, MD at An Die Musik Live!

And the Hülsmann Trio will return for Festival concerts in June:

             – June 23 – Rochester, NY at Rochester Jazz Festival

             – June 24 – Ottawa, Ont at Ottawa Jazz Festival

             -June 27 – Vancouver, BC at Vancouver Jazz Festival   

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

 

 


CD Review: Van Morrison’s “Duets: Re-Working the Catalogue”

March 28, 2015

By Brian Arsenault

I started getting happy listening to Van Morrison’s Duets:Re-Working the Catalog” (RCA) about the time George Benson was singing as smooth as he always is on “Higher Than The World” and I was downright grinning through Van and Georgie Fame’s “Get On With The Show.” Pure 50s jukebox. Drifters, Coasters, gratuitous but funny “cha cha cha” at the end. Just shoulda kept it to two minute twenty second hit single radio time of the era.

You can while away a weekend morning with the album and feel better about things. Be advised, though, you will take a chunk out of that morning. There are 16 tracks. None are bad but some work better than others.

On “Streets of Arklow,” Mick Hucknall (Simply Red anyone) and Van are a perfect matched set of singers on one of the album’s moodiest songs. “Souls are clear. . .”   Mark Knopfler’s voice was made for “Irish Heartbeat” nearly as much as Van’s own. As with Hucknall, their voices flow over each other seamlessly.  Perhaps a bit more Knopfler guitar.

And Van’s good not just with the boys but with the girls too.

Raspy Mavis Staples is the perfect offset to Morrison’s own sharp edges on “If I Ever Needed Someone.”

Daughter Shana Morrison achieves with Dad a hymn of the Church of Music, the only church left to so many, on “Rough God Goes Riding.”

The musicianship throughout is never just background. Of special note are the Whites, Chris on tenor sax and Alistair on trombone. As far as I know, they are not related except by excellence. One example, on “The Eternal Kansas City,” the Whites are at the center of a neat little Kansas City bebop instrumental break.

You can almost hear Neal Cassady yelling, “that’s it, that’s it” on a stop On The Road.

Van Morrison

Van Morrison

When I was disappointed it was only a matter of personal taste, not artistry by Morrison and the incredible talent he assembled.

On “Carrying A Torch”, Clare Teal’s voice is literally like the tealing of the purest bell ever cast. I don’t want Van joining in because I don’t want anything to dilute Clare’s singing. But, hey, it’s his album.

More often, though, you may be struck by the fact that you like the original version of songs better. As Kath said, she likes Van so much she wasn’t sure she always likes him sharing favorite songs. But, hey, it’s his album.

I also found that the album slogged along a bit with ballad after ballad before “Get On With The Show” and the late injection of faster pace with Van and Michael Buble on “Real Real Gone.” I may not quite get Buble but the man can sing and who doesn’t love a song with references to Sam Cooke, Wicked Wilson Pickett and James Brown.

Which brings me to Taj, closing the album with Van on “How Can A Poor Boy?” Taj Mahal is so true to the purity of the blues that he seems to step out from an earlier time. I wondered if Van in closing the album with such a blues rendition of one of his signature songs was telling us that under it all, there is always the blues.

Rings true.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

 


CD Review: Dave Stryker’s “Messin’ With Mister T”

March 25, 2015

By Devon Wendell

What could be better than guitarist Dave Stryker and his famed organ trio (Jared Gold: Hammond B3 organ, and McClenty Hunter: drums with Mayra Casales guesting on Percussion) paying tribute to Stryker’s ex-employee and mentor, the legendary tenor sax giant Stanley Turrentine? On Messin’ With Mister T (Strikezone), Stryker has assembled an all-star lineup of some of the finest tenor sax players in jazz to do just that.

And the results are marvelous. Although Turrentine passed away 15 years ago; his spirit is felt throughout this loving homage.

Stryker and the band kick things off with a stellar take on Turrentine’s “La Place Street” with Houston Person blowing for “Mr. T.” At times, Person’s fat, warm, bluesy tone and phrasing are very similar to Turrentine’s style. Stryker’s fluid and melodic arpeggios weave in and out of the melody with elegance and soul. Gold’s B3 playing is reminiscent of Jack Mcduff and Groove Holmes in that it is rhythmic yet subtle and funky.

Let’s check out the action on all the other tracks.

Mike Lee is the featured tenor player on Michel Legrand’s mid-tempo ballad; “Pieces Of Dreams.” Lee’s playing is sweet and economical. Stryker is the shinning star on this number, with some thoughtful, understated, and swinging guitar phrasing.

Don Braden plays it cool without venturing too far from the melody line on the album’s title track, which is a straight blues.

An absolute album highlight is hearing Jimmy Heath blowing his soul out on Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.” Heath and Stryker never play a note or phrase that doesn’t belong exactly where these men have so masterfully placed them.

urrentine, Freddie Hubbard and others.

Dave Stryker with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine and others in New York City in June 1987.

Chris Potter seams to get better and better every time he picks up his horn. His playing on John Coltrane’s “Impressions” is daring, original, and hard swinging.
Hunter’s drumming drives the band and goes into strong be-bop mode.

But a rendition of Freddie Hubbard’s “Gibraltar” is an unusual choice for a Turrentine tribute. Although Bob Mintzer plays some strong tenor lines, this arrangement goes a little too far into smooth jazz turf for my liking.

Like Chris Potter, Eric Alexander is always on the move and constantly developing his style. His playing on Milton Nascimento’s “Salt Song” is no exception. Stryker’s guitar lines dance and swing with the Brazilian percussion rhythms laid down by Mayra Casales.

Javon Jackson and the band stay true to that jazz-soul sound on Turrentine’s “Sugar.” You can feel Jackson reeling himself in so as not to over-blow, which would not fit this particular piece, which is more about groove than hard-bop acrobatics.

That groove feel continues on “Sidesteppin” featuring Steve Slagle, who really lays back with the band on this funky Stryker original.

Completing the album is a brilliant reading of Turrentine’s “Let It Go.” Tivon Pennicott’s tenor explorations are the most adventurous on the whole album. Pennicott’s bop playing pushes the band to greater heights and soon everyone is cooking like they should. Stryker’s guitar attack is more percussive and daring.

Messin’ With Mister T (the album will be released by Strikezone Records on April 7th) is a soulful, well thought out tribute album to one of the greats. Stanley Turrentine would surely be proud of Stryker and all of the truly dedicated musicians who gave their all on this delightful project.

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


An Appreciation: Remembering Joe Cocker

December 23, 2014

By Brian Arsenault

The memories are so intact. The Grease Band singing crappy falsetto behind him at Woodstock. The kickass chorus on the best damn live album ever, Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Belushi coming out to do Joe Cocker with Joe Cocker on SNL.
I know it’s that time of life when that generation, my generation, the greatest generation in rock ‘n roll, is gonna lose guys. Frequently. The ones who made it past 27 are getting to be old guys now and time is implacable in its demands. Still, it hurts. There was a time when he was rock life incarnate.

Joe Cocker Tie dye singing

Some Cocker fans will tell you that early stuff when he was pictured like a fat, greasy bar brawler was when it was best, pure, raw. They’re right.

Others, a smaller more mature crowd, will tell you that the later albums of soft and soulful stuff extended his range as an artist. They’re right.

But for some of us, the crowd that was just about mad ourselves in those days, there is, was, will never be anything comparable to Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Oh those Leon Russell arrangements. Oh that incomparable backing band and chorus Russell put together.

I know Cocker and Russell despised each other by the end of the tour. That’s the legend anyway confirmed in more than one story and interview. Who cares? The music, damn, the music.

Who ever had two drummers going so frenetically? (Jim Keltner anyone?) The horn section just blasting. Leon pounding the keys. And the soaring chorus. (Rita Coolidge for one.) Sizzling.

Did you think that old torch song “Cry Me a River” could be done that way? Did anyone?

Could anyone else top the originals with covers like “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Honky Tonk Women.” With apologies to the Beatles and Stones of course. But they know. They know.

And I think crusty ol’ Leonard Cohen might have shed a tear when he heard Joe’s “Bird On a Wire.” If he didn’t he should have.

The energy that’s sustained on the album is just incredible. But that was Joe. Sweat dripping, arms flailing, back arching to seemingly impossible angles. A voice edged with whisky and cigarettes.

You half expected him to be Axl Rose surly. But no. He was the friendly guy standing drinks at the bar. A humble thank you after most songs.

That was Joe. Until maybe he got tired. And the gentle side came to the fore. Those sweet songs. “You Are So Beautiful” and so on. But that was always there. Mad Dogs and Englishmen also includes a lovely cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, though he should have done the whole song and not just in medley.

There’s Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and Dave Mason’s “Feelin Alright.” Song after song.

But at the core, the madman core, is that crazy version of “Cry Me A River.” That’ll do.

(Joe Cocker died Monday, December 20 at his home in Colorado after a battle with lung cancer. He was 70.)

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.

 


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