Archive for November, 2010

Blue Valentines: Retta Christie with David Evans and Dave Frishberg Volume 2

Jim Goodwin’s (1944-2009) life would make a great movie. While it would not feature any defining moment apparent to the viewer and required in bio-films, it would be episodic; full of ups and downs but always interesting.
The usual blessing and curse conferred upon interesting characters when describing them, Jim was a “Musician’s musician”. He was known primarily for his coronet playing, inspired by Wild Bill Davison (1906-1989) and Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) but he could also play piano, drums and vibraphone.
Jim was a self taught virtuoso, never wanting to formally study for fear of losing some of the power which came from the freedom and spontaneity of his creative process. Freedom was a reoccurring motif echoing throughout all aspects of Jim’s life.
Initially he studied to be a stock broker in New York after a youth of being a “board boy” for his father’s brokerage firm. Rapidly he lost interest in the financial world, often saying he was the nation’s “Youngest broker and youngest retired stockbroker.”
He served in the National Guard where he was able to play both horns and drums in the band. Jim would find himself stationed at Fort Ord (Monterey, CA) which allowed him to take in the San Francisco jazz scene, then a still fertile scene with the streets bristling with legendary jazz clubs. In his time in the Bay Area he managed to probably play every club and venue including the Fairmont Hotel where decades earlier Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) band leader of Jim’s hero Bix had a long residency. Perhaps one of the more unique accomplishments for a jazz artist also occurred while Jim was living in the Bay Area, going to the world series three times with the Oakland A’s as a member of their pep-band. Athletic and a baseball player himself in high school, being connected to the World Series had meaning to him on several levels.
Jim would spend a lot of time in Europe where, like a lot of earlier jazz greats, he was better known and appreciated. Lack of big name fame never seemed to bother him as it allowed him to create and live the way he wanted; with no pressures to conform or compromise.
Eventually after a stint living in Brownsmead, Or Jim would come to roost in Portland which still has a small but vibrant music scene. With some friends he would start a micro brewing company (Portland Brewing Company) right as the trend of micro brew beers was taking off. He would sell back his controlling shares in the company as to not be tied down but still regularly played the company’s Flanders Street pub, often in duets with David Frishberg
Jim was a great mentor and friend to many musicians. Retta Chrisite’s new album, volume two of collaboration with David Evans and Frishberg, is a sort of valentine to him. Most of the program is made up of songs she was taught by him or played with him. Although somewhat of a memorial, this album offers up a sort of blue tinged wistfulness in lieu of any black cloth draped melancholy.
The album is comprised of all covers which, like the ensembles last outing, mix components of country swing, early jazz and blues in varying degrees. “I Get the Blues When It rains” begins with a few seconds of Retta’s vocals unaccompanied. This emphasizes the intimacy to be found on every track which helps the music better resonate for the listener and allows for repeated listenings without loss of artistic tension. David Evan’s sax here has the Lester Young (1909-1959) Kansas City era cadence. One of David’s strengths has been that his talent does not lie in mere mimicracy; he can go beyond quoting, saying only what Prez said. He can uncannily sound just like him but the verbiage is always his own. In bell like tones, Dave Frishberg’s piano bubbles up, happy to be sad.
“Foolin Myself” as done by this trio is taken at a brisker pace than has become the norm. Retta plays brush (drums) which once again serve as an adept dance partner adding a further sonic layer to the piece. The piano has a full sound which results in a sort of stateliness. Once again the whole ensemble shows how some of their power is derived from an overall organicness in how they respond to each other and the songs.
“My Mother’s Eyes” which is a standard now largely fallen by the wayside, has potential to be given an overly maudlin read. Here is it used as a launching point for the ensemble to reiterate how much fun they are having and the resulting interplay. The song features David offering a brief but great woody toned clarinet break sounding like a cheery Mourning Dove singing its song.
“Old Folks” has some strideish piano which has a sprite like aspect due to the bluesy suppleness of execution. On this piece as in a lot of material Retta covers, the lyrics are clever without being overly precocious. The lyrics often make me lament the loss of Tin Pan Alley, which is most likely all condos now. There is a delicate sax solo, an ethereal presence floating through the piece and offering the beauty of fragility.
“ ‘Neath the Purple on the Hills” is country swing draped in a night of the blues. If only we could all feel sad in this way. When Retta sings a piece which leans more towards the country swing side of things one realizes she has perfect diction, a clarion tone and technique; yet always restraint enough to never over gild the lily.
The album clocks in at a little under forty minutes with pristine sound and liner notes by Doug Ramsey.
Although no nostalgia trip, this album offers a glimpse of when populist elements in music could be both entertainment and art. One component of art in all mediums for the audience is the totem of what we make of it while experiencing it, after upon reflecting back too. The album is small but in an intimate way not in scope of power. The artists as heard here make one reflect on fame; wishing it were not so directly tied in with how well an artist is known but in how well they serve their muse. Like the music itself, perhaps these reflections serve as a fitting tribute to a departed artist.

Retta Christie: vocals/brushes
David Evans: clarinet/saxophone
Dave Frishberg: Piano

For more information:

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

A New Soundtrack for Old Feelings: Dave Deason’s From Another Time

French composer/pianist Erik Satie (1866-1925) was a proto modernist in music and occasionally, writing. His work provided inspiration for later generations’ genres such as minimalism; ambient et al. His music could be stately or playful. The length of his compositions drastically varied from thirty seconds to extended suites for piano.  According to him, every composition was the perfect length to suit its purpose. While he retained his eccentric playfulness, as he grew older he began to further solidify this theories. He envisioned what he termed Furniture Music. This would be music that went with and added to the ambiance of a room or place. This was an early precursor to things like John Cage’s (1912-1992) composition 4’33 (1952) in which the concert hall remains completely silent for said amount of time, the ambient noise of the venue being the composition, changing from venue to venue. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was offered a pavilion for the worlds fair (1958) in which he envisioned a sort of installation with music to match the atmosphere of the place as created by Satie or his more discordant Gemini and Organized Sound progenitor Edgar Varese (1883-1965).

Although what Varese and Satie did stylistically was drastically different, both sought to draw inspiration from and enhance an area’s ambience through music and it’s, on Satie’s part at least, subtle integration to the place. These theories would later morph in the hands of others into occasional gimmick or camp and can be seen as the immediate precursors to muszak. Now with the advent of MP3 players and other technology one can travel anywhere and bring hundreds of albums, held in a device no bigger than a pack of playing cards. The convenience of technology has made it so that in a variation upon what Satie had envisioned, one could have the right music providing the soundtrack regardless of where they are.

This ability to have the right music to suit any situation or place should have made it so that music is now looked at and assessed differently. The best music posseses components of art and entertainment but that which leans more in one direction is of equal value when presented at the right time.

Dave Deason is a Portland based composer and multi-instrumentalist (piano/woodwinds). His latest album From another Time is mood music but not as termed in a pejorative way. The entire CD is thematic, not necessarily in subject but more importantly, in atmosphere. The basic description would be ballads possessing an all pervading lushness and sweetness as can be experienced by the kiss from eating one of the better dark chocolates, or the chill good Whisky produce as it is sipped. The tracks alternate between Dave on solo piano or with string section.

One of the reasons this album works so well is Dave’s strong background in classical music allows for richer layering of instrumental voices, never having the flat feel that even some of the “bigger” names in jazz have fallen into with their “With Strings” albums. Using all originals and not going with the traditional fare of standards for this project, he also avoids falling into the trap of making an uneven marriage between classical and jazz which often leaves fans of both indifferent.

“Nocturne” opens the album, a perfect aural mission statement. This piece shows how the strings are present not just to serve as filling but as an active part of the overall composition and execution. “Nocturne” conjures up scenes from an imaginary black and white movie, the heroine out on a balcony, wind making her dress gently sway as the eyes of the city blink neon below. Towards the end of the piece the strings swell over the soloing of the piano and you know someone is going to get kissed. This piece also serves as an initial introduction to the impressive sonics of the album. There are no empty spaces to slacken the tension, nor any over use of studio magic to make the sound come at one block like or overly cold, as can be a danger in this digital age.

“Elegy” is the first solo piano piece. Dave is once again well served by his classical background as his playing shows strong melodicism and crisp articulation. This is by no means a straight out jazz album and the piano never lapses into overtly virtuosic soloing which would take the listener out of the mood.

One of my other favorite solo piano tracks is “I’m Calling You”. With its repetition of a melodic phrase which weaves and disappears through a sort of stuttered and descending structure. With its air of mystery, this shows influence of 20th century composers such as Anton Webern (1883-1945) and impressionistic elements akin to Maurice Ravel (1875-1937).

“From Another Time” is a melancholy piano remembering something while the string section commiserates with it. It is richly textural, offering what could be the artistic illegitimate child of Nelson Riddle and Max Steiner. At the halfway mark in the song is plucked bass playing over soaring violin and bowed cello added to by a shimmering piano.

This album is inspired by a feeling of a bygone time yet does not feel inauthentic as we are listening to one of our contemporaries looking back over his shoulder at what had come before, inspired by it yet not seeking to trap it under museum glass. The album is sixty minutes long with pristine sound and brief liner notes. Having done scoring work for the independent film From Kilimanjaro with Love (2008) has also inspired and left its mark on Dave, as the album has an overall cinematic feel to it, a tone poem for the celluloid age.

More information:

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Brass for Bunny: The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Sessions

Who would be on a jazz Mount Rushmore? It makes for good conversations as it gives one insight into other fellow aficionado’s subjective logic as to who should have their visage immortalized in stone. Personal tastes aside, were an opportunity ever to arise to create such a monument, who was to appear in regards to contribution to the art form would require that it more resemble a musical Easter Island; as to ensure credit given where credit is due. Jazz from any era and genre has always had composers and musicians who possessed the dichotomy of building off of what had come before them to create new paths.

The further forward we move in time the more the earlier eras which occurred pre-Bop become submerged in the overall consciousness of the more casual jazz fan. It is a surprising phenomenon as an easier ability to travel and things like digital downloads have made older music more readily available than ever before. Exploring earlier jazz allows for not just  the intellectual exercise of hearing the embers from which more modern day musical heroes caught fire but offering up enjoyment in itself.

One important figure whose reputation has steadily been on the wane is Bunny Berigan (1908-1942).

Initially Buddy played both violin and trumpet up until 1927. He spent early adolescence as an actual working musician, playing mostly with local bands and occasionally, national acts passing through town. A 1928 audition for Hal Kemp (1904-1940) where his tone was criticized as “too thin” served as impetus to woodshed and concentrate solely on his horn. A scant two years later his playing had drastically improved to the point of allowing him to find work in New York with Frank Cornwall. Hearing him in New York Hal Kemp now hired him. Aside from some recordings with Kemp, Bunny also participated on an European tour joining the well known and more steady paying CBS studio band of Fred Rich upon his return.

Buddy would become a sought after studio musician and the list of bands where Buddy’s horn put in an appearance reads like a who’s who of what would become the Swing genre. Often there was a symbiosis between ensemble leader and Bunny in regards to popular reputation. 1935 had Benny Goodman recording two of his earliest hits “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I am Happy” both featuring solos by Bunny. This year is often also cited as the lynch pin moment of swing’s birth when Benny Goodman’s band, with Bunny leading the soloists, took up a residency at The Palomar Ballroom (L.A).

Garnering more and more of a musical reputation, Bunny would bounce between groups; the logic of why he left often only being known to himself. He would rejoin Fred Rich ensemble appearing in a movie alongside his bande and after a few other brief stopovers in other groups (Red Norvo, Ray Noble, Red McKenzie) he would join Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956) where he would appear on two more hit singles considered “his” “Marie” and “Song of India” (1937).

Bunny would form his own band which made records including one which featured both his singing and playing “I Can’t Get Started”. His band would have several incarnations happening rapidly over the span of three years. Most of the records made under Bunny’s name proved popular but the money, due to practices of the labels at the time and his own ineptness at business created the need to break up his band. Tommy Dorsey rehired him, yet despite a star reputation or perhaps because of it, Bunny chafed at being “merely” a sideman again. He would strike out on his own again, this time touring with a far smaller ensemble which in theory would have been easier to mange both in regards to discipline and business. Physically and despite his young age, the scaled down touring proved too much as years of hard drinking and living finally took their toll. Being hospitalized mid tour for pneumonia the doctors discovered Bunny also had cirrhosis of the liver. Bad business deals and an inner wanderlust prevented him from taking it easy and living a calmer, more scaled back lifestyle. Back in NYC to play, Bunny’s self neglect and overindulgence would finally catch up with him, a massive hemorrhage taking him at only 33.

His Icarus like rise and fall has some surface similarities to his peer Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931). Both where mid-westerners of German descent who felt the need to more Americanize their names (Bix was originally Leon-Bismark, Bunny was Rowland-Bernard). Although at different times, both found themselves in the Paul Whiteman band. And of course both died tragically young due to drink. In many ways though, they were less twins and more bookends overlapping where the music was in flux, Bix from the end of the “hot” jazz tradition and Bunny at the start of the swing era.

Bix could play but it was often his tone most mentioned, referred to by Hoagy Carmichael as akin to a mallet hitting a bell. Bunny had a beautiful tone too but conveyed more and varied emotion within his playing. With emotion as his main impetus he would sometimes miss the mark but even hearing the attempts was exciting. A disconnect between modern listener’s expectations and the reality of the recordings keeps these two trumpet titans from becoming better rediscovered. In reading about Bix, the tone and logic of his solos is mentioned but due to the era he was recording in with the actual technical restrictions and the limit on how much art an entertainment seeking public would put up with, his solos are often behind a larger ensemble, a short statement coming usually at the beginning or middle of a piece. It does not have the same structure or even sound as what modern jazz listeners are used to with bands featuring a trumpet soloist. The effect is made worse perhaps by the writing devoted to Bix’s playing, the context in which his solos appear was contemporary for its time so no thought was given to that aspect, also many who wrote about jazz during his hey-day were also getting to see him live, when bands would stretch out a number from how it appeared on record, incorporating many of the star soloists’ hot jazz beginnings.

Bunny has a vastly larger oeuvre than Bix. To be sure, there are the novelty tunes, the songs where the solo is surrounded like the taffeta flounce of a ball gown dress by an orchestra/band but he did manage to do some small ensemble work both as leader and sideman. His small group work especially is rewarding and more readily palatable to contemporary listeners not well versed in the earlier eras.

Mosaic Records, who do beautiful and expensive comprehensive boxed sets had a Bunny Berigan set (the website currently does not seem to list it). One CD was removed form the set (disc v11) and is currently being sold as a “last chance” single CD. The CD is small group sessions some of which Bunny was not the leader on. People familiar in Bunny’s work sometimes feel that he did his best work as a sideman, without the pressures of holding the band’s discipline and the business worries that went with being the boss he had no distractions from his creative process. Really, there is no discernable difference in his playing from sideman to boss. He took risks in the service of obtaining an emotional delivery regardless of whose session it was.

Overall, I do enjoy his work more in small group sessions more no matter the ensemble’s leader. The first sessions on the CD are actually a Bud Freeman (1906-1991) sextet session. Bud Freeman was multi reediest (clarinet/tenor sax) who initially rose to fame with Eddie Condon’s (1905-1973) “Austin High School Gang” (1922) in Chicago. Nic-named “The Eel” because of the long lined solos on the self same titled song he cut with Condon, he showed a (for the time) progressive streak in execution of what and how he played as opposed to a lot of his direct peers who were rigid purists, sometimes referred to as “The Moldy Figs” and most typified by Eddie Condon. Like Bunny, Bud would have some hits too with Benny Good man and Tommy Dorsey.

On the first track “What is There to Say?” Bunny enters with a bright and percussive cadence which shows him to be the great grandfather of the later to come splatter school of playing. Bunny shows too what he always openly admitted, which was an admiration for the way Louis Armstrong then played. With a rhythm section that includes Eddie Condon on guitar, the front line of Bunny and Bud wrap their lines around each other throughout the song. The contrast between Bud’s mellow long lines and Bunny’s more bright snappy ones is very enjoyable. For a piece from 1935 it is somewhat surprising that, were the rhythm section stripped away, the song is two long solos merging to form a duet. Because of this aspect, it leans more towards music/art and less towards entertainment. An interesting thing of note, in the piano chair is Claude Thornhill (1908-1965). Here his playing is not the elegant blue tinged daydreams he would later let float out of the keys as leader of his own ensemble. Here his playing is beautiful but bluesy, of the earth, showing far stronger influence and admiration for stride and ragged time with its plink-chime cadence which he would later abandon.

Throughout the different sessions on this CD there are multiple takes of tracks. A pet peeve of mine is when they are put one after the other. I much prefer to have the album with its original tracking then the extra tracks at the end.  Here, once again is the grouping of multiple versions of each track. Often times too the extra versions of a track are important only to the completionists but here the extra tracks are full tracks, not false starts and they do differ from each other, which when one is in the mood for it, makes comparing the takes interesting.

“The Buzzard” contains a great stride solo which conjures up images of a crowd hidden by a silver blue veil of smoke, drowning ice cubes in-between dances. Again the song is of the same structure as “What is…” There is not a lot for the rhythm section to do but keep time but it never becomes monotonous on account of the inventive skill of the two soloists. Another interesting side note is that bassist  Grachan Moncur is the father of Blue Note Records progressive composer/musician (trombonist) Grachan Moncur III.

“Tillie’s Downtown Now” whose title could have been one thought up by Thelonious Monk has a lilting rhythmic figure at its center complete with a Storyville style drum pattern by Cozy Cole. Bud is on clarinet and Bunny switches from a fat drunken bee mid register to climbing staccato ringing bursts. The song has a catchy melody which through artistic cross pollination has been used by some of his direct peers with such success it is no longer clear who the originator of the initial melody is.

The next group of songs is from a session from 1935 under Mildred Bailey’s (1907-1951) name. Mildred had recorded with Bunny’s former employer Paul Whiteman as well as The Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman. Artistically, she moved in many of the same circles as Bunny. From the time of her marriage to vibest/ band leader Red Norvo (1908-1999) they would be known as “Mister and Misses Swing” performing and recording with each other even after divorcing.

This ensemble features one of Duke Ellington’s musical factotums, Johnny Hodges (1906-1970) on alto. Pianist Teddy Wilson (1912-1986) who would back many of jazz’s most famous female vocalists (Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald) was equally engaging in instrumental ensembles, participating in the famous small groups of Benny Goodman (trio/quartet). Here he is the ideal ivory tickler as the band is not emphasizing vocals above music or vice versa.

“Willow Tree” is a lament to all things blue. The dynamics between Johnny Hodges and Bunny differ from the previous tracks with Bud. Johnny still has that recognizable purr so much a part of his signature and it is interesting hearing him conduct himself on non-Ellingtonian faire. Bunny’s playing is all murmurings which showed that he could convey a soft melancholy effectively. The piano break is delicate but not overly fragile, an articulate nighthawk explaining why they are sad to the counterman, leads organically to the next solo of Bunny’s which then becomes a short series of trade offs with the alto. Mildred’s singing is engaging, like Bunny an emotional conveyance was of the highest priority for her. Unlike a lot of her female peers she need not shout to testify the blues nor did she resort to that sort of speak-sing also so prevalent at the time. The band retains Grachan on bass but has no drummer yet maintains a full sound devoid of empty spaces which can wreck the tension.

“Honeysuckle Rose” is a Fats Waller (1904-1943) tune. Here the alto jovially catches the come hither playfulness of the song. The piano and trumpet play together, a sort of bubbling mirth. Mildred’s delivery is quivered and conveys a laughter perfect for the innuendo.

The last sessions on the CD are with Bunny as leader of a septet (piano is un-credited). “Chicken and Waffles” one of Bunny’s originals nods at the not too (then) long gone “hot” past of jazz. It has a jam feel to it with bright toned trumpet solos, a strideish piano break and upper register clarinets. It manages to take a snap shot of some of the energy which was created at the many after hours a jam was like.

“Blues” has a fantastic mid registered legato horn line as an intro which gives way to a clarinet which is like a belt of good highlands whisky, rich and woody. Melodically, the song sounds like a slightly altered version of “Tillie…” The alto solo like the other solo voices before it captures and retains the same mood. The expressiveness of Bunny’s solos later in the piece keeps the song from what would in lesser hands feel formulaic.

The sound on the CD is very good as Mosaic always puts the greatest effort into their re-mastering. Although tracks and ensembles are listed on the inside cover, there are no liner notes as this had been part of a bigger set which came with a booklet.

This is the perfect album for someone who wants to delve into the early days of jazz yet wants to avoid the effects of emotional detachment which can occur when a piece of music feels too much like it is coming to us from another time.

Bunny Berigan: The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Session (disc vii Mosiac)

#1-6: BUD FREEMAN AND HIS WINDY CITY FIVE: Bunny Berigan (tp), Bud Freeman (cl, ts), Claude Thornhill (p), Eddie Condon (g), Grachan Moncur (b), Cozy Cole (d). #7-13: MILDRED BAILEY AND HER ALLEY CATS: Bunny Berigan (tp), Johnny Hodges (as), Teddy Wilson (p), Grachan Moncur (b), Mildred Bailey (vcl). #14-18: BUNNY BERIGAN AND HIS BLUE BOYS: Bunny Berigan (tp), Edgar Sampson (cl, as), Eddie Miller (cl, ts), Cliff Jackson (b), Grachan Moncur (b), Ray Bauduc (d).


, , , , ,

Leave a comment