Monday, December 13, 2010

Bobby Hackett and 'technique'

Most musicians are obsessed with mastering their instruments. Some focus on perfecting their high registers, while others think mostly of the speed of their fingers on the keys. A tasteful few concentrate on developing a beautiful sound. Stride piano master James P. Johnson is reputed to have practiced in the dark with a blanket over the keyboard to increase his strength and accuracy, while others such as Charlie Christian jammed 'til dawn to perfect their ears and invention.

This physical mastery is called 'technique', and the poorer one's technique is, the more it can occupy one's thoughts. A slow-fingered saxophonist is overtly conscious of his plodding, and the trumpeter lacking an effective high-register might spend many practice sessions addressing and readdressing the problem.

Cornetist Bobby Hackett was more concerned with the difficulties of his instrument than most. He was a guitarist who found himself better known for his secondary (though much loved) instrument, and thereafter he embarked upon a regime of lessons, practice and mouthpiece hunting. Through these efforts, he achieved a more consistent mastery of the cornet, and later the trumpet. His recordings from the 50s and 60s show a polish unheard in his earlier playing.

But by focusing on improving his technique, did Bobby Hackett lose something of his original style? Perhaps. His early recordings show a very real delicacy; when he plays a phrase, we listen, hushed, with the understanding that it might all go wrong at any moment. We hold our breath in case we might distract him. We recognise that here is a human being who is just as likely to take a momentary wrong turn in his music as we are in our own relationships, conversations and emotions.

Some misguided musicians have rebelled against the tyranny of technique, and insisted that 'pure' music is untutored and raw. I don't believe that at all. It's just that one's limitations can inspire unique solutions and approaches. My belief is that, while I might marvel at the superhuman feats of Charlie Parker, Art Tatum or Roy Eldridge, I am moved more by a flawed human with a gift for beautiful music.

Here is Bobby Hackett (along with other jazz greats), playing Embraceable You in 1938. It's a love song, and he sounds truly in love - passionate, inspired, yet unsure.

'Echoes of Harlem' dance troupe

Impressive dancing and infectious enthusiasm from 'Echoes of Harlem', Swing Patrol Melbourne's premier dance troupe:

This is a visual/physical evocation of the music I love.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jazz doesn't know who's playing it

We are right to celebrate Lester Young, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and the rest of the jazz greats, but often glorious music is performed by musicians who are obscure or even unknown to the jazz cognoscenti. For every 'West End Blues', featuring Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines at their early peaks, there is a fascinating record by nobody in particular. Perhaps these second-tier recordings are less innovative and polished, but they still reflect the admirable energy of musicians striving to play the best music they can. Often the results are exciting and unique.

A precious memory of mine: US/Australian jazz genius Tom Baker and I stood at the bar in an Australian pub at the conclusion of a weekend jazz festival, shortly before he was cruelly taken from us by a heart attack. The jam session tottered unsteadily nearby, fueled more by alcohol and enthusiasm than by skill and inspiration. The musicians were not well-regarded jazz players, but rather a collection of semi-competent 'weekend warriors'. As the predictably messy final chorus of Tiger Rag reached a crescendo, suddenly everything clicked into place musically and the tune finished in a blaze of driving hot jazz. Tom turned to me with a look of sheer joy and whooped his approval as the applause began.

He'd spent the weekend as featured guest, sitting in with any band he could find. At times, I'd wondered how he could bear the difference in competency between him and the musicians with whom he was performing. That miraculous few seconds of music, and Tom's reaction, taught me all kinds of lessons about music and life.

Here's a fantastic record by the breathtakingly obscure J. C. Johnson & His Five Hot Sparks, playing 'Red Hot Hottentot' with spirit and poise:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sidney Bechet the composer

It seems bizarre to me that the compositions of Sidney Bechet are not performed by jazz musicians more often today. Sure, there are a couple I have heard on a regular basis - Petite Fleur, Dans Les Rues D'Antibes - but many others are neglected, or perhaps even worse, performed only by Bechet imitators.

Now I love to hear someone grasp nobly for the same tone, power and vibrato that Bechet possessed. I truly believe that the musician as imitator has a few really valuable qualities, most notably acting as a publicity device for the original - drawing attention to a figure who might otherwise be overlooked. But it is the kiss of death for a composer.

Bechet wrote many fine compositions that have not been explored in the way they could be. Why doesn't someone revisit Blackstick, Southern Sunset, The Broken Windmill, Song of the Medina, Promenade Aux Champs-Elysees and his many other tunes with a new approach? Because they are too closely associated with the performing style of their composer. Bechet the musician has doomed Bechet the composer.

There are exceptions, of course - Bob Wilber focused on Bechet's compositions, not his playing style, in the group Bechet Legacy. But it's still soprano sax/clarinet at the forefront. I'd like to hear them done by a full big band, or a Hot Club style quintet, or a tenor saxophonist with rhythm section.

Here's Blues in the Air, a Bechet composition that could (should!) be played by jazz bands everywhere. Apparently the minor strain has been lifted from an operatic melody - W.C. Handy and others practiced 'tune collecting' in a similar fashion, so I've forgiven Sidney.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The University Six (aka the Goofus Five)

The University Six (also known as the Goofus Five) was one of the earliest bands-within-a-band, being drawn from the ranks of the California Ramblers. Their lineups were chock-full of musicians too often damned with faint praise. Consider some of these musicians:

Adrian Rollini - usually a footnote in jazz history books, mentioned in passing as one of history's only famous bass sax players. In fact, he was a remarkably consistent performer who inspired a dazzling variety of jazz greats, while seeming to invent a swinging saxophone style out of nothing (as discussed by Richard Sudhalter in his incredible book 'Lost Chords'). I believe his playing was far ahead of Coleman Hawkins' in the early 1920s, therefore making him the first great jazz saxophonist after Sidney Bechet.

Chelsea Quealey and Bobby Davis - barely mentioned at all in most jazz history books, and usually treated like the poor man's Bix and Trumbauer if they are. Here both demonstrate drive and creativity. Davis particularly impresses me during his alto solo.

Tommy Dorsey - accorded respect as a commercial big band leader and 'the trombonist who influenced Frank Sinatra', but mistreated by jazz fans who don't realise he could play 'true' jazz at times. Marked down for not being Jack Teagarden or J.C. Higginbotham, when he should be appreciated for being Tommy Dorsey.

The audio is accompanied by a gloriously idiosyncratic collection of photos. What an interesting development we are seeing through YouTube - old music given the video clip treatment. The interplay between the music and the images adds to and alters the artistic result. Thanks to YouTuber Atticus70.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Al Bowlly and Spats Langham

Here's 'Got a Date with an Angel', a beautiful old song with sweet lyrics and an interesting melody. Of course, it suits Al Bowlly perfectly. He knew just how to present a song in its best light, perhaps the rarest quality in a singer.

A year ago I was touring the east coast of Australia in a band featuring UK banjoist/guitarist Thomas 'Spats' Langham, who introduced this song to me. I looked forward to it every night. Spats sings in a manner that suggests Bowlly rather than imitates him, and he's certainly one of the most charismatic musicians with whom I've worked. I wish I had a recording of Spats singing this!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The internet and Tom Baker

The internet has had a huge impact on music. No one would argue with that statement, and the negatives can be pretty depressing.

However, fans of music outside the mainstream are blessed by sites like YouTube and Wikipedia. These sites may be far from perfect, but they make it possible to feel connected with others of similar interests, past and present.

To illustrate my point, if I want to hear the great American trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, I can find a dozen videos of him in seconds. It's not the same as visiting his regular gig in person, but it complements listening to his albums very nicely.

If I want to feel like there are others just as passionate about jazz as I am, I can visit jazz blogs like Michael Steinman's Jazz Lives.

For me, it is a matter of deep sadness that American/Australian multi-instrumentalist Tom Baker died in 2001, just as this technological revolution was poised to document his musical powers in greater detail. Because he was such a powerful influence on me, I regularly check the internet for new recordings or videos of Tom, but I rarely find them.

Here are a few audio recordings from the Ascona Jazz Festival in 2000 that have quite recently made it onto YouTube thanks to musician Michael Supnick. I hope there are other musical delights like these in many a closet, one day to be made available commercially or informally.

Earl Hines elucidates

Here is a fascinating video of Earl Hines, one of the most dazzlingly virtuosic pianists to emerge during the 1920s, explaining and demonstrating the evolution of his style.

This clip is remarkable for at least two reasons. The first is that here we have a jazz musician who is a model of eloquence, in direct contrast with the 'cryptic hipster' stereotype.

The other reason I find this particular clip so remarkable is that here we have the artist as explained by the artist, rather than some (hopefully well-intentioned) friend or biographer. Imagine if we had access to videos like this for ALL our musical heroes; Mozart patiently explaining his composition techniques, Charlie Parker recounting his musical breakthroughs, Johnny Dodds speaking directly to us about the clarinet reeds he preferred!

Of course, he may be simplifying his music by accident or design, but until a time machine is invented, this is as close as I'll get to an Earl Hines piano lesson.

Here's how he sounded in 1939:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Ernesto Nazareth

The prolific Brazilian pianist and composer Ernesto Nazareth was a master of tango and choro music.

I don't pretend to know much about him, but I find his compositions (such as this one, Odeon) a moving evocation of a foreign time and place.

A quick internet search yielded the information that Nazareth was admitted to an asylum after some 'mental instability'. He shares this dubious honour with jazz greats like Buddy Bolden and Leon Rappolo. Other musicians too numerous to mention have exhibited signs of similar instability.

I wonder if this so-called instability has a link with artistic creativity. Or perhaps it has more to do with the chronic ill-treatment of artists across many societies, where an artist's self-worth can be gradually worn away by misunderstanding and ill treatment. Maybe there is no link at all, and musicians as a group are no more than proportionally represented amongst the 'unstable'.

One thing I know to be true - Bernd Lhotzky is a wonderful pianist!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Boswell Sisters

Innovative arranging, polishing singing and solid entertainment from the Boswell Sisters. This is a new clip to me, though I've seen others before.

I wonder whether their simultaneous movements were choreographed for the audience's benefit or whether they actually aided with timing and phrasing.

Quality music is timeless!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Benny Goodman, and my thoughts on modern music

When I listen to this live recording of the Benny Goodman band in 1943, I am reminded of the sheer power of a good swing band. These musicians sound so different to the musicians I hear playing 'swing' these days, who are all-too-often trying in vain to reign in more modern tendencies during solos and ensemble passages alike.

Not that I'm saying everything must be pure or authentic - far from it! I just feel that if you're going to play swing music, you should respect the style you're working within. There's plenty of freedom to be found there.

My generation has had unprecedented access to different musical styles and sounds. This is wonderful of course, but the danger is that we mix too many things and end up with a diluted result. Instead of combining the vibrant colours of different musical styles, we can end up mixing them together to form a muddy grey hybrid. We lose that wonderful variety of sounds by offering the same 'mix of everything' as all the other groups.

What a thrill it must have been to stand in front of this band in 1943, where there were fewer influences to be heard, but such cohesive spirit and collective energy!

And what a thrill it must have been to receive that applause at the end.

Summit Reunion

Here is a video of the great 1970s group Soprano Summit, reformed as Summit Reunion in the 1990s. Bob Wilber is particularly superb on the soprano - how polished and stylish he makes this difficult instrument sound! When I first watched this, I wondered how Wilber could top clarinetist Kenny Davern's effort, but he does.

While young, Bob Wilber studied and lived with Sidney Bechet. Initially he sounded good but imitative. Now he sounds mostly like himself, but I think he still plays with the same operatic approach as his mentor.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Dorsey Brothers in 1928

Here's one of my favourite recordings by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra. I first heard this tune performed much slower by Annette Hanshaw, but Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey turn it into a stomping tune, particularly after the vocal.

Listen especially for the hot trumpet solo towards the end by Tommy Dorsey. The brothers began on cornet, and both played this instrument impressively on records during the 1920s. Apparently even when his 'sweet' band was at the height of its popularity in the late 1930s, Tommy would still occasionally borrow a trumpet from his brass section and unleash a hot chorus or two.

I also enjoy the singing from Harold 'Scrappy' Lambert. His style hasn't aged as well as Al Bowlly's, but it is wonderfully polished.

Perhaps the best bit for me is the arranging - I love the way the tuba is used as part of the brass section during the final choruses. Reminds me of the Ben Pollack band of the same era.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Almost hearing Django

I was recently talking with a musician friend of mine who has been around for many a season. The subject of gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt came up, and my friend Bob told me the following story:

Bob was listening to records one day with an Australian musician and bandleader called John Ansell. John led the Cootamundra Jazz Band in regional New South Wales during the 1950s and 60s. Bob put on a record of Django Reinhardt and John remarked thoughtfully 'I almost heard Django live once'.

Of course, Bob was gobsmacked by this - not the fact that he had been around at the time, because Bob himself had seen Sidney Bechet and Charlie Parker live. Instead he couldn't believe John had passed up the opportunity. He replied, 'What do you mean, you almost heard him - why DIDN'T you?'
'The guys I was with didn't want to go in,' John said.
'Why didn't they? It's Django we're talking about here!'
'Oh, the place was full of Germans,' John said. Bob thought this through, then asked, 'What year was this, John?'
'It was nineteen forty-two.'

John explained how he had been held in Paris as a prisoner of war while with the Australian Defence Force in World War II. He was sprung out of his prison by the French Resistance one night, and while on their way through the streets they passed a nightclub. John looked through the window and saw Django Reinhardt playing on the stage. His rescuers were less than keen to go in because of the German officers inside, and despite his protestations he was escorted out of Paris to the hills.

It may be that this story is partly or wholly apocryphal, but to me the reality of it isn't the point. Instead I treasure how it places my jazz idols within a historical context. Even if this particular story were untrue, it IS true that Django and my other heroes existed in a living, breathing world filled with chance encounters and danger.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Elmer Snowden 1933

Here's Elmer Snowden on banjo with his band in 1933. He was a fine musician who played superb solos on an instrument often viewed as restrictive. Usually he receives a brief mention in history books as having put together the band Duke Ellington used as the nucleus of his more famous orchestra. This film footage demonstrates he led an excellent band of his own years later.

Young Roy Eldridge is featured on trumpet here BEFORE his first recording session, while trombonist Dicky Wells and Sid Catlett are other stars I recognise.

They are no doubt hamming it up at the director's request, yet I find their rhythmic momentum inspiring. Very few bands playing early jazz and swing today can replicate this feel of 'togetherness'.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Andre Ekyan

One of my favourite sax players, Andre Ekyan was a French saxophonist who recorded frequently with Django Reinhardt in the 1930s and 40s. Here he shows a fleet-fingered approach influenced by Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins yet delivered with a feathery tone that reminds me of Pete Brown.

Another delight: Reinhardt demonstrates that he could play more rhythm by himself than most rhythm sections can en masse.

Footage of Stephane Grappelly, Joseph Reinhardt and others

While surfing the waves of YouTube, I came across this fantastic film footage of Joseph Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelly, Andre Ekyan, Hubert Rostaing and others.


Johnny Hodges - Day Dream

I was recently discussing Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges with a drummer friend of mine. He cited this as one of his favourite records, and it's easy to understand why:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fletcher Henderson revisits an old favourite

One of Fletcher Henderson's great recordings in the 1920s was 'The Stampede' (1926). It's red hot:

And here's his 'remix' version from 1937 (now called simply 'Stampede'), showing Fletcher's fantastic 'swing era' arranging skills and a sound dancers must have loved at the time:

Benny Carter on trumpet

There's a distinct appeal to multi-instrumentalists, and jazz has plenty of them. Two who have had an impact on me personally are Tom Baker and Ade Monsbourgh.

Perhaps they were inspired in part by Benny Carter. Here is one of his early recordings on trumpet, away from his more regular alto sax. He plays with a solid technique and a clear sense that he is approaching the trumpet like a trumpet, not like an alto sax.

There are arguments against playing many instruments. For instance, the old cliche 'Jack of all trades, master of none' rings true all-too-often. Also, you have less time to devote to each of your instruments. Finally, there is the tendency for it be seen as showing off, which it may be!

Benny Carter transcends all argument and instead focuses on playing, not alto sax, trumpet or clarinet, but music. He is aided by other stars such as Chu Berry and Teddy Wilson.

Russell Procope

Duke Ellington liked to recruit players to fill the roles his departed musicians had created. Hence, Cootie Williams 'became' Bubber Miley in a way, while numerous trombonists gave their own impressions of Joe 'Tricky Sam' Nanton.

One of these substitutions that is rarely mentioned is where Barney Bigard and Russell Procope are concerned. Procope was New York-born, yet he obviously admired New Orleans clarinetists. His early recordings, notably with Jelly Roll Morton and Fletcher Henderson bear this out.

Barney Bigard, one of the stars of Ellington's 'Golden Age', left the band to freelance in 1942. His chair was not directly taken by Procope, but when Procope did join, Ellington used him in a similar way - when the music called for a warm and earthy, New Orleans-style clarinet solo, Procope was it. Jimmy Hamilton, the other clarinet specialist in the group, had a polished and somewhat emotionally-detached approach, and you can usually tell the difference by their use of vibrato; Procope's vibrato was fast and obvious, while Hamilton played with almost none.

Follow the link below to see Russell Procope play an emotive clarinet solo on Mood Indigo. Also of interest is Harry Carney playing bass clarinet in the opening trio.

Sidney Bechet plays the melody

Sidney Bechet had an intensity in his playing that is only hinted at by his imitators.

I used to find him abrasive on the soprano, always longing for him to switch to clarinet. I don't know what happened, but now I appreciate his playing on both instruments equally. Perhaps our musical tastes mature just as our tastes for food? I couldn't stand olives as a kid, now I adore them.

I believe that one of the most challenging things in music is to play a melody well. Here is a lesson in just that:

Now watch it again to see those naughty sax players joking around while the master plays!

Too sweet for words...

Annette Hanshaw at her charmingest:

Friday, October 29, 2010

Eddie Miller the bandleader

Eddie Miller, on tenor sax with his short-lived big band, playing 'Yesterdays'. Here he has the opportunity to show off his gorgeous tone and delicate touch:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Eddie Miller the clarinetist

Eddie Miller played wonderful tenor sax for decades, most notably with Bob Crosby's Bobcats. He excelled as the fourth horn player in an improvising front-line with trumpet, trombone and clarinet. It's a difficult job, and not one that gets the audience's attention - you've got to weave a musical line that stay out of the way of the mobile clarinet, doesn't interfere with the trombone in outlining the chord changes, and especially doesn't challenge the trumpet lead. In short, you're doing a good job if no one notices you, yet the band has a wonderfully thick harmonic texture.

Eddie Miller and Bud Freeman are the only ones I've heard do it perfectly in addition to providing inspired solos. Both played clarinet on occasion, but Eddie Miller played it superbly. The recording below shows his woody New Orleans sound, one shared by Willie Humphrey and Raymond Burke.

He's hardly an unknown, but Eddie Miller doesn't receive the attention an artist of his consistency and good taste deserves.

Coleman Hawkins - a masterclass!

This is not a new video - it's been around since 1935. In fact, it's not even a new video for me personally, as I remember seeing it years ago when YouTube had just taken off.

However, for a jazz fan like me, it's wonderful to see footage of one of my long-gone heroes smiling and talking, even stumbling over his words a little. I recently bought the great new 2-CD set 'Cabaret Echoes' on the Archeophone label, which features snippets from interviews with New Orleans musicians like Kid Ory, Johnny De Droit and Abbie Brunies. Each time I hear their characterful voices, I'm reminded of the reality of their existence; they were real people, living full lives outside the grooves of the records I know and love.

Coleman Hawkins was a real person, and though there are many alive today who knew him or saw him live, it's so powerful for a youngster like me to be reminded of it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tom Baker and Martin Litton

Here is a video of American/Australian multi-instrumentalist Tom Baker on tenor sax with UK pianist Martin Litton, playing Stardust. A winning combination!

Tom Baker didn't inspire me to play jazz, but soon after I discovered jazz, he became my hero. He still is. Countless musicians, young and old, felt/feel the same. He was a truly special human being who left us too young and too early.

Martin Litton is another exceptional musician, commanding a whole range of styles and moods at the piano. I've never met a more gentlemanly fellow.

This is only one of a bunch of great videos from a performance by the Swedish Jazz Kings with guests at Askersund Jazz Festival in Sweden.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Eubie Blake and His Orchestra

A red hot recording by Eubie Blake's band in 1931. The other tunes they recorded aren't nearly as exciting as this one. It builds up some serious momentum after the vocal.

Clarence Williams Stompers

A fascinating mix of musicians on this Clarence Williams record. Don Redman proving his skills yet again on reeds and vocals - and I imagine that this is one of his arrangements.

Nice tuba!

Clair De Lune

I recently had the pleasure of playing this evocative tune with a Django-styled band. Of course, the only problem is whenever you announce it, the audience will expect the Debussy composition!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lionel Belasco

Music doesn't get any prettier than these lovely Lionel Belasco recordings, in my opinion. I was introduced to Lionel Belasco (and other obscure but amazing musicians) through the soundtrack to the film Ghost World.

Al Bowlly with Arthur Briggs

A young Al Bowlly singing with trumpeter Arthur Briggs and his orchestra. Briggs was an African-American musician who made the most of the comparatively relaxed working conditions in Europe in the 20s and 30s. It's fascinating to hear him here with Bowlly, such an iconic British vocalist.

I love Bowlly's rhythmic style - his lines have a half-spoken feel at times. Old-fashioned hot syncopation!

Arthur Briggs' cousin Pete recorded on tuba with Louis Armstrong's Hot Seven. I wonder what Arthur would've got up to had he stayed home too?

Annette Hanshaw - private recordings

Annette Hanshaw retired from public performance very young, but these private recordings posted on YouTube show she could still sing wonderfully.

Her mature, deeper voice reminds me of the great Lee Wiley.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Joe Marsala and Carmen Mastren

Here's clarinetist Joe Marsala with a great lineup, including alto saxophonist Pete Brown and trumpeter Bill Coleman. All three horn players have gorgeous sounds. I've been listening to plenty of Joe Marsala lately, and he consistently surprises with his delicacy and ideas.

The rhythm section sounds cohesive too, headed by unsung hero Carmen Mastren on guitar. I find it interesting that a big band guitarist from Tommy Dorsey's unashamedly commercial orchestra could provide the heartbeat of classic small groups like this one and the Bechet/Spanier Big Four. Imagine finishing a gig as a virtually unheard and unseen acoustic guitarist - a tiny cog in a big machine - and going straight to a thrilling small-group jam session, spurring on the likes of Sidney Bechet!