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: