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.


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: Lena Seikaly’s “Looking Back”

April 23, 2015

“A perfectly wonderful jazz vocal album”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

A classically trained mezzo-soprano who swings? Yes – and her name is Lena Seikaly. Although only 25, she is an established composer who has written many classical and jazz arrangements for small ensembles, choirs and full orchestra. She is also an educator, a successful teacher of jazz and classical voice.

But I wish to focus on that rich voice. Whatever your vocal criteria – quality of sound, intonation, phrasing, handling of time – Seikaly excels. She is a smart, sophisticated vocalist for grown ups.

Lena Seikaly

Lena Seikaly

 

If justice does exist, Looking Back, her third self-produced CD, should make the Washington D.C.-based Seikaly a star. Although it was released a year and a half ago, it is fresh on the national scene and worthy of more attention.  Seikaly has it all, a luxuriant rich voice with a melted-butter vibrato, a feeling for jazz, a deft sense of swing, effortless delivery, stunning presentation and a Rolls-Royce quartet providing her accompaniment. Just as importantly, she projects an unaffected honesty and joy.

Like many of the better singers, Seikaly also has an impeccable repertoire. Three ballads immediately grabbed my attention. Her easy patient way with “Baby, What Else Can I Do” is downright ecstatic. Is this seldom-heard Walter Hirsch-Gerald Marks collaboration truly a great song or is her sensuous delivery seducing my ear? Either way, the 5-minute cut alone is worth the price of the CD.

I have not heard a better rendition of Harold Arlen’s dramatic 1933 “I Cover the Waterfront.” Seikaly nicely includes his well-written but seldom heard verse and deftly handles the four octave jumps. The marvelous and sad “Supper Time” is certainly one of Irving Berlin’s greatest ballads particularly that long 16-measure bridge. Seikaly brings this cry of anguish to vibrant life.

She also swings delightfully and is even the scat’s meow. Mel Torme once said something like “a little scatting goes a long way.” It seems that every new jazz-influenced singer feels a need to scat, whether they have a facility for this vocal art form or not. Fortunately Seikaly’s scatting is subtle and as true as an oboe and she nicely uses this vocal technique judiciously. For example, on Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and Duke Ellington’s “I Love You Madly” she is in lockstep with Zach Pride’s bass. Like an experienced lover, Siekaly initially takes her time with Benny Davis’ “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and then, with effective use of dynamics swings and scats the subsequent choruses. Drummer Lenny Robison displays his talents on this cut.

This is certainly Seikaly’s CD but she benefits immeasurably from the seamless interaction with her group. Pianist Chris Grasso, whether swinging or laying down tasty chords is superb. Bassist Zach Pride has a sound with depth and authenticity, something you want to reach out and touch. Guitarist Paul Pieper talents are very much evident on such cuts as Richard Whiting’s beloved standard “Guilty.” Speaking of this cut, you may notice that Seikaly’s Looking Back is somewhat a tribute to vocalists Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters.

Maybe it’s the water or the climate. Whatever the reason, the DC-Maryland area seems to have had more than it’s share of superior vocalists. Just to cite two examples, in the 1970s-80s there was the sublime Shirley Horn. In the ’90s – for too short a time – there was the genre-defying, captivating Eva Cassidy. Those two are stellar company and now we can add Lena Seikaly to this illustrious duo.

She has a natural, relaxed voice and was born to sing. Her warm timbre and uncomplicated phrasing are notable for their ease and expressiveness. You understand every word she sings and, given her selections on this CD, the lyrics deserve to be heard.  Looking Back is a perfect jazz vocal album. If that sounds too reverent, let me change the praise to “perfectly wonderful.” I’m already looking forward to her next release. For more information on background and recordings, click HERE to visit Seikaly’s website.

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To read more about Roger Crane, the Song Scout, 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 Reviews: Anat Cohen’s “Luminosa” and Eliane Elias’ “Made In Brazil”

March 29, 2015

By Don Heckman

It would be hard to find two better examples of some of the changes that have taken place in jazz during the new century than the presence and the playing of Anat Cohen and Eliane Elias. Tel Aviv-born Cohen and Sao Paulo-born Elias have convincingly established themselves as significant instrumentalists. And, in the case of Elias, as a significant instrumentalist/vocalist. In one fell swoop, these two gifted artists have played prominent roles among the generation of gifted female musicians who have lately been cracking open the glass ceiling signifying the gender bias that has been present in jazz for most of its long history. And they’ve done it as international performers.

All of which may be intriguing as sociology, but what really matters is what’s in the music. And these two new releases are eminently listenable programs of 21st century jazz at its finest. Add to that the further linkage between them in the sense that the music on both albums is deeply rooted in the long love affair between jazz and the music of Brazil.

Anat Cohen

Luminosa (Anzic Records)

In listening to Luminosa, one is frequently drawn to thinking of it as “Anat’s Brazil album,” especially understandable, perhaps because her affection for the choro genre, with its buoyant rhythms and improvisational aspects, is very much present on Luminosa.

As a former clarinetist, I’ve watched Anat’s growing mastery of the instrument, which was paralleled by an equally extraordinary growth as an improviser. And her playing on Luminosa takes her to yet another step higher.

I hesitate, however, to emphasize individual tracks. After several listens, I began to view Luminosa as a contemporary jazz suite, enriched by many aspects of Brazilian music. Like most effective suites — in jazz, classical and beyond – it demands a complete hearing. Once one begins to be enthralled by the opening “Lilia,” the embrace of the tunes continues, touching a far reaching range of emotions before winding up in the climactic “Wein Machine,” in which Anat offers some quick, convincing doubling on tenor saxophone.

Call Luminosa a musical experience not to be missed – by former clarinetists as well as every other lover of captivating improvisational music at its finest. Let’s hope the Grammy voters will agree.

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Eliane Elias

Made In Brazil (Concord Records)

I first wrote about Eliane Elias in a review for the Los Angeles Times in the late ’80s. (We were very young at the time – well, she was.) Among other complimentary remarks, I described her playing as “state of the art contemporary jazz.”

It’s a description I wouldn’t hesitate to use now in reference to both her piano playing and her vocals on this evocative new CD. Add to that the fact that it was recorded in Brazil with all the rich musical resonance that the location and the players could provide, and – as with Anat Cohen’s Luminosa – the result is an album that demands nomination for the next Grammy Awards.

Eliane Elias hand on hipIt’s also a homecoming for Eliane, the first recording she’s made in Brazil since she came to the U.S. in 1981. And she’s made the most of it, adding a full cast of Brazilian players, among them Roberto Menescal and Ed Motta, as well as her talented daughter Amanda Brecker, the superb orchestrating skills of Rob Mathes and the incomparable vocal textures of Take 6.

That list alone speaks for itself. But I can’t neglect the repertoire, as well – which includes Eliane’s originals, along with classics from Menescal, Ary Barroso, and a pair of memorable Antonio Carlos Jobim standards.

The result is an utterly captivating musical program reaching across a wide spectrum of music. There are too many highlights to mention them all. But they begin with Barroso’s anthemic “Aquarela do Brassil,” move on to Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco” and a medley of his “Este Seu Olhar and Promessas,” Menescal’s “Voce” and “Rio.” Topping it off, Eliane reveals yet another aspect of her eclectic creativity with a pair of her own well-crafted songs, “Some Enchanted Place” and the lyrical “Searching.”

Also like Anat Cohen’s Luminosa, Eliane Eliase’s Made In Brazil is more than a collection of songs. It’s a rich, full-bodied, suite-like assemblage of irresistibly appealing music. And the more you hear it, the more it reaches out to reward its listeners with the fullest range of emotional riches.

Let’s hope that some thoughtful record company has the good judgement to record these two gifted women performing together.  (And if an experienced, empathic producer is required, give me a call.)


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