Posts Tagged vocals
I recently attended a concert which offered up a bill comprised of multi-generational musicians. With the older guys, were one to not watch them play but listen only, there would be no sense of having lost a step; no reduction in power or chops. The night had been dedicated to the recently departed Mulgrew Miller, a joyous sendoff yet a reminder too that the clock never stops ticking down.
Now added to the sad parade of names, Sathima Bea Benjamin and Marian McPartland. While I currently have a very full up schedule, I could not let these two passings go unremarked upon as I greatly admired both women and our paths ever so briefly intersected. This is by no means meant to be any kind of definitive, scholarly obituary but more a personal memento mori .
I had the pleasure of interviewing both women back when I used to bleed ink for All About Jazz. With Marian, I scored the interview basically as luck of the draw; I was up next in the bullpen to conduct an interview.
Her importance of place in modern jazz can never be overstated. Besides her own performances and recordings, her Jazz piano show did not so much humanize a diverse array of greats as add further, deeper layers to already compelling artists. I did thorough research so that I could ask the questions that I knew were expected of me but also more obscure ones as to try to do a definitive interview that covered her long career.
I was given an East Coast number to call and a time. I called at the appointed time, on the dot but no one picked up. Being her home phone number an answering machine came on. I did not feel it right to leave a message, I may have been wrong, and so hung up. A minute later my phone rang, that familiar voice sounding a little annoyed asked me;
“Did you just call me and hang up?”
I explained who I was and why I had called; asking if now was a good time to do the interview to which she said yes. A few questions in and she paused for a moment, asking me;
“But why had you hung up without leaving a message?”
As we continued on she realized I was not merely asking the standard run of the mill questions and warmed up to me. She was surprised that I had found out about her father having offered her one thousand pounds to stay in school at her career’s start. The interview was conversational and rich with jazz history. Two of my favorite moments:
Prompted by my questions, she went into great detail about the day of Art Kane’s photograph “A Great Day in Harlem” (1958). Among other thing Thelonious Monk holding up the taking of the photo as he tried on all combinations of jackets and hats to try to look different;
“[Thelonious] Monk wanted to choose an outfit so that he would look different from everybody else, but he wound up looking just the same as everybody else. He kept trying on different jackets and hats; I forget what he eventually wore.”
I asked her about having toured briefly in the 60’s with Benny Goodman. This was when Rock and Roll had already deposed Modern Jazz as soundtrack for youth, artists and bohemians, let alone the older genre which Benny Goodman had helped create. He did not like her playing and she asked;
“Benny I know you don’t like my playing. Why did you hire me?” He looked at me in sort of astonishment and said, “I’m damned if I know.”
The tour would be stopped with the death of President Kennedy.
She was a great lady and one of whom I was honored to have briefly interacted with.
The Sathima interview I got under different circumstances. I unintentionally became the go to guy for artists who were deeply genre defying; doing interviews with people propagating odd mélanges of the downtown sound or modern improvised classical. The benefit of these assignments was that I was turned onto artists I would otherwise not have discovered. The other type of interviews I was given were artists who had pedigree and an abundance of talent but their stature, to the more casual listener, was not on the same level as Miles or Sonny Rollins. These assignments I relished, as to me regardless of what tier they were placed on by other jazz writers, they were heroes. Again, I did my research finding far less information and what I did find seemed the reiteration of the same basic history from previous articles. At the time I was to do the interview, she was living in New York doing light club gigging and a soft promotion of the reissue of her A Morning In Paris album.
From the very start she was friendly, exuding a warm, earth-mother kind of vibe. She was beyond generous with her time, I had to keep changing tapes in my machine, both of us laughing as I had to tell her;
“Wait, please wait I must change the tape again.”
Eventually I ran out of questions to ask, we talked about the nature of creativity, cooking and Africa. She said that she liked my name and sort of sang-said it several times as she was mulling over the answer to one of my questions. Her life would make an amazing movie with no need of embellishments for the drama. She talked about not being well known in America and the hard logistics of trying to keep a band if not together as a permanent unit then steadily working for live dates, all without a trace of bitterness or regret. It seemed after a while; more that I was talking to a friend than being granted an interview. As we continued to chat I made bold by asking her about the pizzicato violin of Svend Asmussen, from the Paris album. As great of a musician as he was, to me it at times is distracting from the other things going on. She told me a fantastic story “off record” then as we continued to talk, changed her mind and said that I could put it in;
“So while we were doing this “Nightingale In Berkeley Square” he said now you are going to work with a trio. And then I did “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” and other things, “Darn That Dream…” And while we were into that the door opened and in walked… Svend Asmussen. And Ellington said “Oh, hey—you are just what we need… I want you to play with her but listen and this is important…Please do not play the melody. She is the melody.” So is that not beautiful? Ellington said “You can play anything else but you don’t play the melody.” So that’s why he played all the pizzicato, which I found sometimes like really annoying me. But what could I do? I wasn’t in control of this. I wasn’t going to tell him.”
She was an amazing woman, whose acquaintance I feel lucky enough to have made. I would like to think that if my interview did not help her in any professional way, it at the very least pleased her.
Farewell to two great artists whose artistic lights will never dim.
August 21, 2013 Midtown
This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The late 1800’s/early 1900’s, the term “redneck” had drastically different connotation than that which it carries today. Initially it was a verbal short hand to describe the Irish and Scottish immigrant farmers down south. After a day in the fields their necks burnt a lobster red. Like all who joined the great melting pot with dreams and hopes of something better, they brought their songs to sing with them. Folk melodies, murder ballads, played with a lot of the instruments which would be used for the early country music. This mixed with the sung laments of plantation slaves birthed the blues.
The earliest blues was a complex amalgam of these three seemingly divergent sources, country, folk and plain song brought over by the slaves. In the far future practitioners may have more chops, but the construction and influences would never again be as open minded, nor as organically mixed.
The embodiment of this first great wave of bluesmen was Charlie Patton. The exact date of his birth is often debated. Given sometimes as April 1887 or 1891. He himself was never sure, the later date being supplied by his parents for a 1900 census poll. He could not read or write except his name which he always slowly spelled out loud C-h-a-r-l-i-e. Ironically throughout his oeuvre it is spelled Charley.
Charlie was descended of mixed blood which included white, Native American and African American. The oddly pejorative term “good hair” (Caucasian-like) was often used to describe him when not talking about his music.
His family was religious and disapproved of his music and his casual teachers. The music was referred to as “Devil’s music” and his romance with it often earned him beatings from his father. Eventually, for whatever reason his father eased up, even buying Charlie a guitar. It was shortly after this he hit the road never again to return home for any real length of time.
Charlie’s main recorded output was the blues, but this was far more a financial decision on the part of the record company than a personal artistic choice on Charlie’s part. It was the same commercial consideration which largely kept Charlie’s less blues like pieces from ever seeing wax.
He did not seem to mind. Often to give an audience their money’s worth, when performing Charlie would toss and catch his guitar, play the underside percussively, drum like or when the mood struck him, behind his head. Considering what was resonating from him, all far from necessary.
Although he never liked to complain, like many artists of his day (and sadly, in ensuing decades) Charlie was taken advantage of by record companies. He and other artists would have to commute to Northern cities to record or in makeshift studios set up in barns or flop houses.
These early blues men were pursued by record companies not out respect for their artistic merits but in hope of creating an African American record buying (phonographs too) public. With few exceptions this was driving vision behind these small companies.
Pony Blues was successful, Charlie’s biggest seller (Paramount Records). In keeping with the times only the smallest trickle of money went to him. From his point of view, while never becoming rich, he was kept in sandwiches, whiskey and smokes. Always happy enough to not have to do manual labor as often.
Pea Vine Blues used a new gimmick thought up by the record company. The record was released with a contest. The singer was listed as “The Masked Marvel” its cover depicting an illustration which looked like Charlie donning a Lone Ranger styled mask. Contestants were asked to guess his identity. The winner received a Paramount Record of their choice. The contest entry forms accompanied the record all 10,000 sold out. Staggering when you consider that this was well before the age of mass media or quick communication. Paramount Records hedged their bets by also doing up 7000 promo posters and ads in The Chicago Defender, the premier paper for the other side of segregated America.
The initial pressing quickly sold out creating the market for a second pressing, a then rarity for such a specialized market.
Interestingly enough, Charlie had recorded (briefly) some religious hymns under the pseudonym J.J Hadley. Either name was an accepted answer for the contest.
Charlie was of average height and slight build (135lbs) but some of his material was musical boasts concerning his prowess and potency. (Charlie as a proto rapper?). Mostly though, he and other blues forefathers would recite topical verse over often simple but hypnotic beats. Charlie is believed to be the first one to use the now standard twelve bar blues pattern.
Initially, before the lexicon of blues standards was born, the tales in Charlie and his peers songs were intricate, image rich American Gothic. Flannery O’Connor meets the juke joint.
In Charlie’s lyrics, depending upon your point of view, God or the devil was ever present, not as an incarnation, but as natural calamities. Floods, the taste of one’s mortality, even boweevils. Despite the commercial considerations of what Charlie recorded, there was always more than just some woman having done him wrong. Deeper themes whose narrative complexity still retain their power in this modern age when Charlie’s way of life has long since vanished.
Another key appeal of Charlie’s work was his vocals. The lyrics were often obscured. The cadence of his voice being used as a second instrument. There is something about the sound of those simple, yet hypnotic beats mixing with that voice. It reaches deep down into you, a primal twitch. I like to listen to this in the dark. You should listen to this in the dark, listen anywhere desolation and appetite can be poetry.
It was said that Charlie had, had eight wives. At the very least he had eight roommates. With a hair trigger temper he had fought with all of them.
When not in jail, sick or recording, this American troubadour was out living the life he would represent in his art. Reporting on what he saw and interjecting his own opinions. One of the strongest tracks off of CD #2 is “High Water Everywhere”. This was based off of the 1927 Mississippi flood and its after effects as he witnessed them. It is from the episodic growl as much as the cabaret theater world of Brecht/Weil that Tom Waits would build his initial musical foundation off of.
Long time brother in arms Willie Brown spent years observing and playing with Charlie. From the practical application of this apprenticeship Willie became a great blues man in his own right. It was from Willie in the 1920’s a teenage Robert Johnson attempted to learn.
With the onslaught of the depression, many small record labels folded, times were tough all around and Charlie made due the best he could. By the mid 1930’s, Charlie, in his mid forties began to feel the effects of his lifestyle. A fight one night ended with Charlie having his throat slit and living to sing about it. Bad woman, good cocaine and strong whiskey with an endless supply of cigarettes to mark the time in between each.
1934 saw the depression finally beginning to bottom out. People no longer needed to be tunnel-visioned on how to eat, where to find work. It would be several more years until it was done with completely. The theory that affordable distractions will always make money in times of trouble has been proven again and again.
W.R Calaway of The American Record Corporation wanted to record Charlie. For what would be Charlie’s last sessions he tracked the artist and his wife Bertha Lee who would share vocal duties, down to a Mississippi jail where they were both serving time for having had one of their knock down drag outs at a house party. W.R Calaway made bail and brought the pair to New York.
New York was having one of its bad winters. Charlie was already frail and sick. Both in lyrical content and in his haunted performance Charlie seems to have felt the ebb and flow of his mortality.
One of Charlie’s last recorded songs was 34 Blues, 34 being slang for “go away”. Three months after his final sessions while living on a plantation with another woman Charlie died of a heart condition brought on by an attack of rheumatic fever. As he lay dying, in delirium, it was to the reciting of one of the religious hymns he recorded as J.J Hadley he occupied his last days until death finally took him.
The sound on these three CDs is good, it has been cleaned up, but not sanitized to the point of loosing its soul in studio artificiality. At times there is the ambient presence of a 78’s hiss. It works, it belongs. The effect is akin to listening to some of the great prewar Edith Piaf recordings which contain the same hiss. It furthers the effect of being spoken to from another time, without ever distracting or lessening the art. So well does it work, it almost seems as if these two artists, so different, both incorporate the hiss and technological limitations into their deliveries and technique.
The songs are all presented in chronological order which I always think is a nice touch. Aside from the aforementioned “High Water Everywhere” another personal favorite (CD #2) is “Mean Black Moan” which features a trance inducing guitar pattern, with the singing violin sounding almost like an upper register clarinet all occurring while the tale is told.
Henry Sims on violin is perfect. He had a touch which managed to be both raw and subtle. He would go on to work with later day blues man Muddy Waters. It offers a glimpse of what might have been if Charlie had had opportunity for more instrumentation or at least further sympathetic accompaniment.
The packaging is nice. The three CDs are packaged in hard cardboard sleeves to look like old 78’s which are housed in a good looking little box with an eighteen page informative booklet.
This compares nicely with “The Best of Charlie Patton” (1 CD Yazoo). Yazoo was one of foremost revivalist of early American music chroniclers. This is one CD and not really that much less than this three CD set.
The crown jewel for any serious collector is “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues:The Worlds of Charley Patton” (7 CDs Revenant Records) This is literally functional art. Designed to look like a large 78’s record box, it includes lots of reading material including the long out of print thesis on Charlie by John Fahey, stickers interviews and other Charlie related literature. An investment to be sure, but worth it.
It was not until 1980 Charlie was actually induced into The Blues Foundation’s hall of fame. In 1990 singer John Fogerty paid for a proper funerary monument to be erected. Other Mississippi blues men are talked about and sited more often. Charlie’s stuff, because of its deeply personal delivery would be far harder to emulate. This is the king. From the roots of this musical tree would flow far reaching and diverse branches.
On some tracks:
Willie Brown-second guitar
*This article is not to be used or reprinted without the expressed permission of Maxwell A. Chandler (email@example.com)
Jazz At Pearls is located in North Beach, a great San Francisco neighborhood which is a mix of curious tourists and colorful locals. In the 1950’s it was ground zero for the (literary) beat movement and some of that bo-ho flavor remains for the younger generations to absorb.
The room is small enough that there are no bad seats, but not so small as you feel depressed for the artists. Their concert schedule offers an eclectic mix of local heroes and well known names in jazz who would rather forgo the larger less personal venues.
Multi-award winning singer Linda Kosut brought her tribute to Oscar Brown Jr. (1926-2005) “Long As Your Living” to Jazz At Pearls June 22 for two sets. I was there among the capacity crowd for the first set.
Linda possesses a stage presence which is naturally relaxed while also being able to convey the emotions of each song’s story. The set was made up of songs from her Oscar Brown show with which she has been touring the country interspersed with standards which shared similar emotional cadence and feel. In between songs Linda would talk with the audience, sharing the background of a piece’s history. This never disrupted the flow of the set and never felt show-biz-e. There was an instant rapport with the audience which lent an intimacy to the entire set.
I have seen this show in various venues and I appreciate that it is no cookie cutter affair. Every show and set is different while never losing its main theme. This time there was an expanded band too, still led by band leader Max Perkoff there was now an added multi-reedist/flautist Fil Lorenz. I enjoyed the extra colorations that another instrument allowed for, as Fil added further depth to the pieces.
The set opened with the standard “Let’s Get Lost” taken at a brisker pace than usual and lightly samba flavored. John Mader on drums made his brushes delicately dance across the snare while still getting a nice full sound, the piece having none of that E.Q tinkering sometimes encountered at the start of a club show. There was a nice tartly flavored sax break with a piano solo continuing the horn’s conversation. Being a leader of his own ensemble, Max knows the perfect mix of band interplay and interaction with the singer. Listening, you never feel one component of a song has gone on too long or is merely a bone thrown to the band.
“Birth Of The Blues” was a perfect counterpoint to the previous song’s cheery romanticism without bringing the audience down. It was melancholy as a thing to rejoice as it gives something whose passing can be celebrated. There was a soulful, sanctified sax solo worthy of every late night blue note.
As Linda pointed out, Oscar sometimes would add lyrics to standards of the jazz cannon, not always with permission. A cover of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” complete with Oscar’s words came next. The piece was fun and sexy, the sister to Oscar’s “Hazel’s Hips”. Max plays both trombone and piano; here he takes a boppish ride on the eighty eight keys. The cymbals sound like rain falling upon the city of the hip while each musician gets a solo statement before passing it off, radiating the fun they are having out to the crowd.
The next song featured both lyrics and music by Oscar, “Column of Birds”. Here the flute acted as the fluttering wings. Linda can use her voice as a musician, varying cadence and volume depending upon the size of the room and the emotion required. Both in lyric and delivery this song was plaintive yet hopeful.
After sharing the interesting history of the lyrics for “Don’t Fence Me In” which Cole Porter bought off Robert Fletcher, came the actual song. The vocals are answered by a stride flavored piano and sassy horn sounding like a friend with whom a playful joke is shared. The vocals are bluesy and hip and would not sound out of place in the halcyon days of cabaret in Paris or Berlin.
The Doc Pomus tune “Save the Last Dance for Me” was performed after an anecdote of the pieces inspiration. This version differs from the more familiar R&B versions in that the poetical intent of the lyrics is more apparent. Without back up singers echoing the songs refrain, there is a darker strain to the song’s protagonist’s emotions.
Leaving the stage, Linda brought one of her protégées Benn Bacot up on stage to sing “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Benn has strong, natural power in his delivery. He wields a rich baritone which recalls Joe William and Johnny Hartman. In his hands the song became less a fragile lament and more a declaration of heartache and tenacity. For the entire set there was great interplay among the band and with this different vocalist sitting in there was no detectable bump in their performance.
After Linda rejoined the band, Benn would be back for a cover of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” which Oscar had put lyrics to. His baritone was perfectly tailored to traverse the emotional landscape of the song. Mirroring his blues was a bar walking sax solo devoid of all cliché that style sometimes has.
Daniel Fabricant on bass was a study in tasteful restraint throughout the set. His sound on bass was full but never overwhelmed and there were no over long over flashy solos which can distract from the tension of a piece. One song was performed “Young Jazz” which had lyrics of Oscar Brown over a Lester Young solo arranged into music by Daniel. It got everybody moving in their seats and was the perfect song to end the set with as it served as a reminder that not only was Oscar a poet and activist, but he entertained as well. His art is continuing to be served and served well by Linda and the band.
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: http://www.rettachristie.com