An Appreciation: Clark Terry

February 23, 2015

By Devon Wendell

There’s no way my piece on Clark Terry will be as journalistic and informative as my boss Don Heckman’s was in the L.A. Times obituary, but I had to say something about the master himself, in my own way.

I can’t imagine life without Clark Terry. That tone on the trumpet and flugelhorn was so warm and clean that it caressed and nurtured you out of the darkness. His phrasing swung harder than life but not in a flashy fashion. Terry’s lines were elegant, sly, and precise. They were perfect.

I grew up on Clark Terry. The first record I heard with Terry on it was Ellington At Newport from 1956. But it was Terry’s 1957 masterpiece on Riverside Records; Serenade To A Bus Seat that got me hooked. Like Coleman Hawkins, Terry came from the big band era and wasn’t afraid of the be-bop and hard bop schools of thinking and playing. Serenade To A Bus Seat is proof of that. Terry burns through Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” with confidence and soul along with bop masters Johnny Griffin, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. The entire album stays at that level of brilliance.

Clark Terry

Terry didn’t just go along with the changing music scenes, he added to them. A rarely spoken of gem and one of my all-time favorite recordings from the late ‘50s hard bop era is In Orbit, recorded with Thelonious Monk. Terry and Monk (along with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones) play some of the most beautifully twisted blues you’ll ever hear in your life. Neither musician is trying to reinvent the wheel here; they are just having fun and swinging beyond belief.

I got to meet Clark Terry at The Village Vanguard in NYC sometime in the mid-‘90s.  He wasn’t performing. Johnny Griffin was on the bill that night and I spotted Terry seated close to the bandstand.

After the show I nervously approached him and he joked, told stories of Duke, Basie, Miles, and the music business. He may be the kindest person I had met up to that time in the music business. I had worked with so many narcissistic jerks that Terry’s presence was warm and sweet, just like his sound. His smile and sense of humor were larger than life.

Of course I’m sad that Clark Terry has passed on and I send my deepest prayers and condolences to his family.  But I’ve got the album Top And Bottom Brass playing loud as I write this and stacks upon stacks of other classic Clark Terry recordings that I’ll be playing all night so I feel great. This man left us with so much to cherish and learn from and nothing can take that away.

Rest in Peace Clark Terry.

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


CD Review: Diana Krall “Wallflower”

February 4, 2015

By Don Heckman

Diana Krall’s continuing quest to widen her already far reaching repertoire has led her to some of the most memorable songs of the ’70s and ’80s in this fine new Verve outing.  I’ve been hearing, seeing and writing about Diana in action since the ’90s. And I’ve been consistently awed by her capacity to apply her rich musicality to whatever genre she tries on for size.

Wallflower is no exception. I haven’t viewed the songs of the ’70s and ’80s with the sort of affection triggered by tunes from other decades in the Great Songbook. But sung with Diana’s remarkable story telling skills, virtually everything here comes vividly to life.

That said, it’s no surprise that the best known and most successful five or six numbers in the twelve song program have the greatest impact. The list begins with Diana’s laid back takes on the Mommas and Poppas’ “California Dreaming,” the Eagles’ “Desperado” and “I Can’t Tell You Why,” Leon Russell’s “Superstar” and Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word.”

Add to that a pair of captivating duos in which Diana is joined by Michael Buble on Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again” and by Bryan Adams on Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home.”

As if all that weren’t enough, there are a pair of lesser known, but no less compelling songs: the title tune, “Wallflower” by Bob Dylan and a new Paul McCartney song, “IF I Take You Home Tonight.” And top it off with Jim Croce’s “Operator That’s Not the Way It Feels,” the English band 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and the Australian band Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”

That’s a daunting program of songs, one that would be a challenge for almost any singer who comes to mind. But Diana, as noted above, handles them all superbly, aided by the rich musicality and the touching emotional honesty at the center of her art.

Additional credit should also be offered to producer/arranger David Foster. His arrangements, lush with cushions of string textures, provide a perfect setting for Diana, allowing her to offer her lyrical narratives at every level of sound and feeling.

The only missing element in an otherwise irresistible musical banquet was the up front proximity of Diana’s piano playing. For the great majority of her career, her singing and her piano have been intimately mated, with one continually inspiring the other. And the bolder presence of that creative duality could have provided the energy to transform Wallflower from a fine album to a great one.

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Diana Krall photo by Bonnie Perkinson. 


Christmas CD Review: Jennifer Leitham’s “Future Christmas”

December 10, 2014

By Devon Wendell

A truly daunting task for any jazz musician is to create a Christmas album that both swings for the jazz lovers and appeals to a mainstream audience. If anyone can pull off this feat with ease, intelligence, and originality, it’s Jennifer Leitham and her dynamic trio, consisting of Andy Langham on piano, Randy Drake on drums, and Leitham on bass, vocals, sleigh bells, and water drops.

Jennifer Leitham

Jennifer Leitham

Future Christmas opens with a brilliant trio instrumental version of “Angels We Have Heard On High.” Leitham’s virtuosic double bass playing shines throughout this standard. Her harmonically complex, fluid, yet often delightfully tough and percussive attack on the bass has made her one of the instrument’s greatest practitioners in the jazz world for several decades now.

The lyrics to “Future Christmas (The Global Warming Winter Holiday Blues)” ask the important question “Where is the snow?” Not just on Christmas but anytime? Leitham’s lyrics on the present and future dangers of global warming sound light-hearted but address this subject seriously. The music is superb. Leitham’s bowed bass solo dances around the song’s melody and weaves in and out of Langham’s piano comping. Drake’s subtle drumming locks in the groove and leaves plenty of solo room for Leitham and Langham. Leitham’s singng voice has a sultry and smoky feel to it which is a fine addition to the trio’s sound. This is especially prevalent on Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts chestnut “Christmas Time Is Here.” The dissonant starkness of Leitham’s bass solo on this piece makes it truly an album highlight. The production is stellar.

On “Feels Like Home For Christmas,” “Nature’s Blessing,” and the exquisite “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” it feels as if you’ve known the distinct style and sound of this trio your entire life. The sound embraces the listener with soul and mastery.

Leitham’s tonally precise bowing is awe-inspiring in its adventurousness. Andy Langham’s fluid bop tinged piano work can follow Leitham anywhere she dares to venture.

The band’s chemistry is felt on “Little Drummer Boy/Big Bass Girl,” Leitham’s swinging twist on a Christmas classic. Randy Drake solos along with Leitham on this number. As Drake shows off his diverse drumming skills, Leitham complements every accent and phrase, and then launches out into the stratosphere with her bass on top. “Winter Wonderland” showcases Langham’s Bud Powell flavored piano chops.

The album’s highlight is definitely the legendary Bob Dorough’s “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern.)” The realistically bleak lyrics are matched by Leitham’s hilariously sinister vocals. Dorough’s witty and sly sense of humor as an arranger and lyricist fits the overall sound and feel of this album like a glove.

“Jingle Bells” features another stellar trio performance. It is obvious that these musicians should be playing together and can communicate musically on an intimate level that only truly great jazz players can.

The album finishes with an endearing bass a cappella reading of “O Tannenbaum.” Leitham gets deep inside of this familiar melody and explores new ground without deviating from the music’s thematic qualities. Jennifer Leitham’s Future Christmas is truly a holiday album for the ages. It swings, warms the heart, and displays some inspired musicianship that will delight her strong fan base and attract plenty of new listeners.

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The Jennifer Leitham Trio celebrates the release of “Future Christmas” at Catalina Bar & Grill on Monday, December 15.


Pick of the Night in L.A.: Cat Conner at Catalina Bar & Grill

November 11, 2014

By Don Heckman

Singer Cat Conner is one of the high visibility members of L.A.’s impressive assemblage of jazz vocal artists. She’s also another gifted Canadian jazz performer who’s brought her considerable jazz skills south of the border.

All of which will be self-evident tonight when Cat offers her warm, luxurious voice, convincing musical story telling and floating swing at Catalina Bar & Grill in the company of some of the Southland’s most masterful jazz instrumentalists: saxophone/woodwind artist Gene “Cip” Cipriano, guitarist John Chiodini, pianist Tom Ranier, trumpeter Ron Stout, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Joe La Barbera.

 

The program celebrates the release of Cat’s new CD, Cat House. And Cat is quick to promise that it will be a big time launch party. “We are going to be playing,” she says,” with the joy of five year olds.” And singing, too.

Since most of the band of masters playing with her at Catalina’s are also on the new album, she’ll no doubt showcase selections from the CD. So expect some memorable moments. Who knows, maybe the versatile “Cip” Cipriano will also tell some of his stories and offer some amazing sounds on his bass oboe. How often do you get to hear that in a jazz club?

Don’t miss this one. Catalina Bar & Grill. (323) 466-2210.


Brian Arsenault Takes On, or rather, Treasures: Peggy Lee

October 12, 2014

 By Brian Arsenault

Elton John had Marilyn Monroe but I had Peggy Lee. Miss Peggy Lee, pardon. No, I didn’t write a song for her but she did a song for me. Not really for me but maybe . . .

Peggy Lee at mic gesturesI was 11 or 12 when I first heard “Fever” in 1959 and it gave me a whole new, shall I say, feeling about girls. I was beginning to notice they were different in more things than hair and giggles but “Fever” was a revelation, even if I wasn’t quite sure yet what was being revealed.

As Don Heckman has written, she had so many strengths as a singer: deep sensuality, phrasing at a level only achieved by a handful of greats like Francis Albert and Mr. Bennett, and also like them, the ability to find the emotional center of the song.

An example of another artist finding the emotional center of a song: I was only recently reminded that Sinatra didn’t sing “Luck Be a Lady” in the film version of Guys and Dolls even though he was in it. (So was Brando, sheesh) Yet the song became a signature for Frank who showed it wasn’t really about shooting craps but seeking love. He found the center.

Peggy made “Fever” her own even though a guy named Little Willie John had an r&b hit with it that even crossed over to the pop charts. Still it’s like it was written for her. The song’s been recorded by who knows how many since Peggy, by performers as varied as Madonna and Beyonce, even Elvis. But does anyone doubt its Peg’s song.

Backed by just drum and bass, she just kills it with that deep voice you might have wished your girlfried had, with her funny fake Shakesperean take on the Romeo and Juliet verse, with a restrained eroticism that is almost palpable.

Miss Peggy Lee was singing professionally as an early teen. She fled a wicked stepmother and started by singing on a radio station literally for food. By 17 she was established as a radio singer. By 20 she was fronting the Benny Goodman band. At 21, she wrote “What More Can a Woman Do?” recorded by Sarah Vaughan with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

If I put exclamation points at the end of each sentence in the previous paragraph it would not have been misplaced punctuation. And I almost never use exclamation points. She was just getting started, one of the few survivors of the big band era whose career flourished into the 1950s and 60s and beyond.
Her early 60s appearance at the Basin Street East, mercifully preserved on a great album, just dazzles with its array of songs: “Day In -Day Out,” “The Second Time Around,” “Moments Like This,” “Them There Eyes,” and of course “Fever.” Hear her versions on the album and you don’t need any others. Consider also the limitations of live recordings, any recordings, in 1961 compared to today’s digital, if rather frozen, age.

If you can get a vinyl copy you will know why. On the cover, Peggy smiles to the side, the dress low on her shoulders, an earring dangles. Simply dazzling. And then you listen and dazzling isn’t enough to say.
As an aside, I also love the message on the back of the album below the liner notes:
“This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on Monophonic and Stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete. (Italics mine).” Damn right.

Her gifts were enormous. She was a songwriter for the Disney animated film Lady and the Tramp, a cartoon feature done with a loveliness unknown today. She also did four of the voices, from the lovely Lady to those nasty Siamese cats. I have never been able to warm up to a Siamese since and I kinda like cats.

Peggy also wrote songs with luminaries like Duke Ellington. She wrote TV scripts. She hosted variety shows. She acted in movies. She wrote poetry.

Her last big hit was in 1970 with “Is That All There Is?” Could there possibly be another hit song ever with lyrics taken from a Thomas Mann story? The band on the song was conducted by Randy Newman. Anyone else’s singing career span from Goodman to Newman?

She was in great demand right into the 1980s when failing health finally took its toll. She’d had a near fatal fall in Vegas some years before and came near death again with heart disease and surgery.
Yet she carried on into the 90s when she even performed a few times in a wheelchair. Now that could break your heart, eh?

Miss Peggy Lee died in 2002 having risen above enormous life challenges and changes in popular music tastes over so many decades. But if she’d only ever done “Fever” she’d be great to me.


Jazz With An Accent: Drummin’ Back Out Into the World — CDs by Arturo O’Farrill and Ginger Baker

August 6, 2014

By Fernando Gonzalez

Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra

The Offense of the Drum (Motema)

Maestro Mario Bauzá — trumpeter, saxophonist and music director of Machito and His Afro- Cubans, direct link between Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo and a key figure in blending jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms — scoffed at the label Latin Jazz.

“What they call Latin jazz is not Latin jazz. That’s Afro-Cuban jazz,” he would say in his inimitable growl. It wasn’t just that “Latin jazz” blurred the Afro-Cuban contribution. It was also that, for him, Latin jazz suggested a different, more varied mix — incorporating Argentine tangos, Colombian cumbias, Venezuelan joropos or Puerto Rican bomba y plena.  He would then name artists such as Paquito D’Rivera, Gato Barbieri or Jorge Dalto as worthy
practitioners.

It was the 1980s and it was a short roll call.  Today, he would’ve had a much longer and broader list.

But Bauzá would have been specially proud of the work of pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill, the son of his friend and collaborator, the great Cuban arranger and bandleader Chico O ́Farrill.

For 12 years, sometimes seemingly hidden in plain view, Arturo O ́Farrill has carried on an extraordinary effort, not only organizing and keeping alive an 18-piece big band but doing so while also expanding the vocabulary of Afro-Cuban jazz into a truly Pan-Latin Latin jazz.  By now, the book of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (ALJO) includes not only some of the great standards of Afro-Cuban jazz but also pieces blending in tangos, choros and Peruvian festejos.  In The Offense of The Drum, O ́Farrill both takes it further out and brings it all home.  With the drums as the foundational center of the music, the ALJO connects diverse traditions  creatively but also rather organically.

So a tribute to the shared spirits and grooves in Havana and New Orleans, a musical dialogue  in “On The Corner of Malecón and Bourbon,” flows into a sly Colombian porro groove and  allusions to Colombian papayera band (a type of brass street band) on “Mercado en Domingo.”  But exploring the groove doesn’t preclude a reflective “Gonossiene 3 (Tientos),” which  explodes Erik Satie’s music Arabic elements with a flamenco perspective.

And O’Farrill is neither afraid of collaborations — such as those with pianist Vijay Iyer (the odd  metered “The Mad Hatter”) and DJ Logic (“They Came” which also explores spoken poetry)  — nor having a good time, as with the eminently danceable salsa track, “Alma Vacía,” or the  classic “Iko Iko” – featuring alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, a Big Chief Mardi Gras Indian –  reinvented here as a joyous, bouncing Cuban/New Orleans party groove.

Throughout, the arranging is imaginative, exploring the character of the music and the  instrumental possibilities of the band, while the soloing (especially by O’Farrill and Iyer on  piano, Rafi Malkiel, euphonium and Harrison on sax) is consistently smart and purposeful.  Creative, swinging and open to the world, The Offense of The Drum is Latin jazz at its best.

Offense of the Drum Electronic Press Kit

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Ginger Baker

Why? (Motema)

While lasting only two years, 1966 – 1968, the British trio Cream had an oversized impact in  modern popular music. At different times, Cream has been claimed as ancestor and inspiration  by rock musicians of nearly all stripes, from fusion to heavy metal.

But jazz has more than a fair claim to their legacy too. In fact, one doesn’t need to go back to  their epic version of Skip James’ “I’m So Glad,” in the group’s final Goodbye, to connect the  dots between the jazz tradition and their instrumental virtuosity, their approach to improvisation  and open-ended treatment of the blues. Set aside the pop-rock imagery for a second and think of, say, a saxophone playing the guitar lines and you are closer to an avant-jazz trio than a rock band.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. The two guys working the engine room of Cream, bassist  Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker, were educated in, and fans of, jazz. Guitarist Eric Clapton was a different story — and his post-Cream, MOR career is evidence enough. In his autobiography, Bruce seems to suggest that two-thirds of Cream thought of it as a jazz trio adding, jokingly one would hope, that they just wouldn’t tell Clapton about it.

With his new album Why?, his first in 16 years, Baker, 75, seems to be closing the circle, returning once again, in one gesture, to his old loves — jazz (including two appealing trio records in the 90s with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden), African music and, essentially, the trio format (replacing the guitar with a horn and in fact playing without a chordal instrument this time).

Baker’s band these days, Jazz Confusion, features Pee Wee Ellis on sax, Alec Dankworth, bass and Abass Dodoo, percussion, and offers the drummer a smart, strong, no-frills vehicle.  The repertoire in Why? also suggests a bringing-it-all-home feel.

It’s comprised mainly of Baker’s originals, including “Ain Temouchant,” recorded with Frisell and Haden on Going Back Home (1994); “Cyril Davis,” (sic) a tribute to the British harmonica blues player Cyril Davies, and trumpeter Ron Miles’ “Ginger Spice,” both first recorded on Baker’s Coward of the County (1998); and the title track, a meditation on his life and work including a tip of the hat to the late bandleader Graham Bond.

The set also includes “Aiko Biaye,” an update of a Nigerian song Baker recorded in 1970 with Air Force, his short-lived sui generis big band; Ellis’ “Twelve and More Blues,” and a couple of jazz standards, Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and the irresistible “St. Thomas,” by Sonny Rollins.  Throughout, Ellis is an economic and tightly focused improviser, even as he takes flight on  tracks such as “St Thomas” and his own “Twelve and More,” remade here with a post-bop
swing. Dankworth is solid and fluid throughout, anchoring the group and providing measured, eloquent soloing.

Baker drives the music forward with his distinct drive and African-tinged tom-tom and hi-hat sound. There it might not be in his playing the relentless, maniacal intensity of his heyday (how could there be?) but Baker’s craftiness and musicality more than makes up for what he might lack at this point in energy. In Why? Baker embraces his past — but don’t expect a warm-and fuzzy nostalgia trip. To quote the title of the terrific Jay Bulger 2012 documentary about him, Beware of Mr. Baker. Yep. And that’s a good thing.

Beware of Mr. Baker

To read more posts, reviews and essays by Fernando Gonzalez click HERE


CD Review: Harvey Mason “Chameleon” (Concord Records)

May 1, 2014

By Devon Wendell

For those curious as to what Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters would sound like in 2014 sans Herbie; legendary drummer Harvey Mason’s latest album Chameleon would be the best example of that one of a kind jazz-funk style in a slightly more contemporary setting.

Mason played drums on the original Head Hunters album in 1973 as well as their follow up album in 1975, Survival Of The Fittest. Chameleon sounds more like the latter with its more subdued R&B-Jazz funk feel.

Mason has recruited some of the finest session players in jazz on the album, which was also co-produced by Concord Music Group’s Sr. Director of A&R, Chris Dunn. The opening track, “Black Frost,” features some incredible and daring tenor sax work by Kamasi Washington. “Montara” displays the fluid guitar virtuosity of Mathew Stevens, who also arranged this composition.

Vocalist Chris Turner guests on “If I Ever Lose This Heaven,” adding a soulful and contemporary R&B ambiance that blends beautifully with Jimmy Haslip’s melodic bass playing and the muted guitar lines played by Mathew Stevens. The horn arrangements performed by Corey “CK” King on trombone, and Christian Scott on trumpet are subtle and tight.

“Looking Back” is a highlight of the album, with original Headhunters bassist Paul Jackson laying down his one of a kind style which initially helped create and define this brand of fusion over 40 years ago.

“Before Dawn” and “Places And Spaces” feature tasty, fusion horn hooks by Christian Scott, Corey “CK” King, and Kamasi Washington. King’s vocals on “Places And Spaces” glide nicely atop of the laid back ballad arrangement. Kris Bowers offers up some spacey, acid jazz keys to these pieces and on the composition “Ether Way.”

Harvey Mason

Harvey Mason

But by this point, the album gets a little too steeped in a repetitive and overly mellow ‘70s retro fusion bag, demanding something more up-tempo and original sounding. This is certainly the case on “Mase’s Theme,” which sounds too much like a mix between The Headhunters, Roy Ayers, and George Duke. And that’s fine, but there really isn’t anything new and innovative at this point.

Even the title track “Chameleon,” which is a cover of a classic from the original Headhunters’ 1973 debut album, is far too relaxed and safe in comparison to the original or the 1975 live version from Herbie Hancock’s album The Flood. But it’s nice to hear original Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers adding some thoughtful and melodic flourishes and returning to the hinda hu whistle that helped make the original version so unique.

The most exciting composition is the album’s closer, “Looking Forward (Breaking Bad),” arranged by and featuring some powerful tenor sax work by Guilluame Perret.

John Beasely’s keyboard work is stellar and inventive and Paul Jackson’s bass playing sounds just as funky, tight, and bold as it did in 1973. The piece is filled with tons of fun funky hooks, twists, and turns.

Although Harvey Mason isn’t reinventing the wheel on Chameleon, he once again proves to be one the foremost groove masters in any genre of music. The band performances are slick and funky. Chameleon is a perfect tribute to The Headhunters style and all of the music inspired by the innovative group. Most of all, this is a party album, even during the extremely laid back moments. It’s apparent that all involved were having fun doing what they love.

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


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