Archive | March, 2009

Duke Ellington: the 1952 Seattle Concert Celebrates an Anniversary

25 Mar

ellington-seattleI’m guessing that I’m not the only one who wasn’t aware that Duke Ellington’s The 1952 Seattle Concert was his first legitimate live performance release (with the exception of a few V-Discs). To be honest, I didn’t even know there was a Ellington Seattle concert recording until I came across it, and and today marks the 57th Anniversary of this concert.

One of the interesting things about this recording (aside from the fact that this is an anniversary of it and that it took place in my backyard), is that it showcases some new members at a time after Duke’s top star, Johnny Hodges, and two others, had departed. Drummer Louis Bellson was perhaps the most notable addition, along with valve trombonist Juan Tizol, slide trombonist Britt Woodman, saxophonist Willie Smith, and trumpeter Willie Cook.

The new members contributed not only with their instruments to this concert, but with their compositions as well. The band performed Skin Deep (the opening number) and The Hawk Talks by new drummer Bellson, as well as contributions by Tizol including Caravan and Perdido.

Perdido became a showcase tune for trumpet section leader Clark Terry. I interviewed Terry a couple of years ago, and while he might not be able to play like he did 57 years ago (triple-tounging notes as only he could), he maintains the same personality in his playing that he did when playing with Duke. Clark Terry shines on this recording, and did with the band until he left in 1959.

Other highlights of the release include multiple Ellington standards including It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing, In a Sentimental Mood, Mood Indigo, as well as a 15 minute version of Ellington’s Harlem Suite.

This is a nice item to add to a jazz collection, again as it highlights the beginning of a series of great live recordings released by Ellington. While Duke’s Newport live recording from 1956 still might be his live performance highlight, this album is highly recommended.

The FBI Files of Billie Holiday

24 Mar

Thanks to the wonders of the web (not to mention the Freedom of Information Act), I happened to come across some documents relating to the arrest of Billie Holiday. Files include a variety of interesting things, including newspaper clippings, and letters to and from J. Edgar Hoover. Take a look!

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Concert Review: Branford Marsalis 3/19/09 at Jazz Alley

23 Mar

branford-marsalis1It is rare that I take a vacation, especially a vacation that lasts longer than just a long weekend. For me to have a full week off is virtually unheard of. That being said, I decided that since I was going to take a week of, but was not going to leave town, I needed to make the most of it and fill my days to the brim with local entertainment.

What I began to realize is that sometimes the best form of entertainment during a much needed break can be going to bed early and waking up late. Hosting a midnight to 4 AM radio program combined with a variety of other work responsibilities doesn’t always allow for a normal sleep schedule, so I decided to take more time to find out what that was all about and less time seeking out things to do in the community.

One plan that I wasn’t about to give up in exchange for an early bedtime was emceeing opening night for Branford Marsalis at Jazz Alley in Seattle last Thursday. The only other time that I have seen him live was the last time he performed at the Alley, with his father Ellis playing piano as part of his quartet. While it was nice to see dad join the group, it was rumored that Branford had to hold his playing back a little bit with Ellis, and I definitely wanted to see Branford cut loose with his regular group.

His regular group has not changed over the last ten years, at least on his album recordings. Branford heads up the gang on saxes, while Joey Calderazzo plays piano, Eric Revis is on bass, and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. Tain was not present for the concert, but in his place was a baby-faced eighteen year old by the name of Justin Faulkner. In fact it was his eighteenth birthday that night.

If it appeared that Marsalis was picking on Faulkner that night (be it yelling direction in his ear, or making fun of how Faulkner couldn’t play the next song two years ago and we would “see if he could get it right this time”), I didn’t translate it as so. In fact to me it appeared that Branford just wanted to make sure that, in a roundabout way, he was recognized and noticed. It certainly wasn’t needed. While Faulkner wasn’t the best musician in the band, he was certainly a highlight, offering colorful solos and entertaining playing overall.

Marsalis, Revis, and Calderazzo, as you might expect after ten years together, were in perfect sync, and the quartet as a whole kept the room energized for the entire show. Marsalis was articulate and artistic with his solos, but with the exception of directing traffic on stage, he didn’t overshadow any of his quartet members. One could be totally entertained simply watching Joey Calderazzo’s body language on stage, if it weren’t for his overwhelming playing ability. It is also apparent that Calderazzo has taken an active interest in studying classical music, as some of his beautiful ballad writing (take The Blossom of Parting for example) might suggest.

Even without “Tain” Watts, the quartet was evidence of what spending such a considerable amount of time together could produce. The ability to have such a clear understanding of where each musician is headed and how to best support them through sometimes complicated songs, while producing such a wonderful, “together” sound is reason why this quartet might be the best around.

Jazz Modernized

8 Mar

When you have an art form that has existed for well over one hundred years, with roots to that art form going back even farther than that, you undoubtedly end up placing many different interpretations of that art form all under the same umbrella. There may be no better example of that than jazz. Because of the freedom and progression of jazz, a musician could conceivably call anything jazz if they find some ground to justify it on.

Jazz can be broken down by eras, styles, and about a dozen or so other fields. Debates and arguments happen over which era or style is the best, or what really made jazz what it is. And it seems that as time goes on, many artists try to offer their own performance of a traditional tune with as much respect to the original as possible, write new music, or completely transform old recordings into something completely different, with the vaguest hint of the original.

It is the latter that has my attention today. There are some musicians who are doing a wonderful job creating new modern works, or offering new looks at older compositions. Trumpeter Russell Gunn might be a perfect example of that. His original recordings, and his covers of older recordings both offer the same thing: personality. And not just personality in general, they offer his personality. You can hear one of his recordings, and whether its an original or not, it always has a little attitude and a little bite. It becomes very Russell Gunn.

Some vocalists have taken to putting lyrics to old instrumental tunes, and some have made it work. It took guts for Norah Jones to put lyrics to the Duke Ellington tune Melancholia, but she did, called it Don’t Miss You At All, and the end result was wonderful. On the flip side, you won’t see me banging down any doors to get to the Manhattan Transfer vocal interpretation of the Weather Report hit Birdland.

One of the things that stirred these thoughts more vividly recently was hearing more and more songs “remixed”, and hearing them everywhere. Not so much the radio, but in department stores and elevators. These “recordings” are classic songs chopped up by a DJ, who with the help of a couple turntables (used for scratching, not playing) and a $99 music software program turn it into something you could easily hear at a techno music club. The only resemblance the final product bears to the original is one or two lines that Sarah Vaughan or Nina Simone sang that didn’t hit the DJ’s cutting room floor. The rest is purely electronically produced, almost always with a trance-like robotic drum beat.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve spent hours in dance clubs that featured music produced entirely with electronics. And as a modern day employee of a radio station, there is no more reel-to-reel editing, thank goodness, as everything is done quicker and easier on computers.

But when do we hit the point where we realize, in some ways, that the wonderful modern technology we have in front of us might be a tool that robs us of personality? Is it bad that someone tries to recreate Nobody’s Fault But Mine with one or two lines from the original, plus a recycled drum beat and a heavy bass line, all at five times the original tempo? The majority of the lyrics and anything resembling a solo are completely gone. Maybe it isn’t bad, but it can be unnerving at the very least when someone hears it and assumes it to be the original.

I’m not some old stick in the mud that has anything against modern technology. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But to me, there comes a point where you simply rob music of its originality and personality. And it was that personality that got us all interested in the first place. One might have seen Coltrane in concert and spoke of his 45 minute solo, or heard a recording by Ella Fitzgerald and mentioned how “you could even hear the piano bench Ellis Larkins creak as he rocked in the background, while she sang that heartbreaking tune”.

Give me personality any day, especially when it comes to music…especially when it comes to jazz. Give me something interesting and creative to listen to, and leave the computer and the canned drum beat at home.

Blue Note Records Turns 70…and My Top 10 Blue Note Jazz Recordings

2 Mar

blue-note-resizedThis year blue Note Records turned 70 years old. While many other record labels have come and gone over 70 years, Blue Note has not only managed to stay in business, but to continue to turn a profit and avoid having to cut down on their artist roster. In recent years, this is due in large part to their online download sales and some successful crossover artists including Norah Jones and Al Green.

Below is my list of my top 10 favorite Blue Note jazz recordings. As with all of my lists, this list simply offers my own personal favorites, and I truly encourage you to mention yours as well! Enjoy.

10. Birth of the Cool – Miles Davis – 1949

birth-of-cool The oldest recording on the list, but a great chance to hear Miles in the early stages of what would lead to super stardom.

9. Moanin’ – Art Blakey – 1958

moanin One of the finest examples of why Blakey was not only a great musician, but a great band leader and mentor to those who he recorded with.

8. Consummation – Thad Jones – 1970

consummation This album is not only one of the greatest big band albums ever, but features what might be the sweetest, most beautiful ballads ever with A Child is Born.

7. Song For My Father – Horace Silver – 1964

song-for-my-father I played in a small group once where our director made our pianist listen to this album over and over until our pianist “finally got it”. Silver was one of the best at playing with his group, rather than just playing.

6. Maiden Voyage – Herbie Hancock – 1965

maiden-voyage When you listen to the title track, it might seem simple in structure. But only Herbie and his hand-picked group could make it sound so perfect.

5. The Sidewinder – Lee Morgan – 1963

sidewinder There is not likely a musician who I wish could have had more time to produce more recordings than Lee Morgan. Losing him at age 33 was a tragedy, but what he did produce withstands the test of time.

4. In Pursuit of the 27th Man – Horace Silver – 1970

in-pursuit-of-27th1 An album that brought energy into the 70’s, as well as the young Brecker Brothers. Enjoyable the whole way through.

3. Empyrean Isles – Herbie Hancock – 1964

empyrian-isles This album hosts what is probably one of the most recognizable jazz tunes, even if you aren’t a jazz fan. Once again, Hancock gets together the perfect cast for these memorable recordings.

2. Ready For Freddie – Freddie Hubbard – 1961

ready-for-freddie I could listen to Freddie solo on Birdlike for hours. Whether playing fast or slow, high or low, Hubbard could always keep his solos imaginative and interesting.

1. Blue Train – John Coltrane – 1957

blue-train The first Coltrane album I ever owned, and years later it still gets heavy rotation on my personal playlist. One of the finest recordings in the history of jazz.

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