Jonathan Nichol Plays Modern Sax Music

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TENOR ATTITUDES / RUGGIERO: Tenor Attitudes.1 MINCEK: Karate.2 Nucleus. MARQUEZ-BARRIOS: Concentric Circles.5 LOEFFERT: Bombinate.3 GILLINGHAM: Supercell6 / Jonathan Nichol, tenor sax/3soprano sax/6alto sax; Geoffrey Deibel, 2tenor sax/3soprano sax; 3Jeffrey Loeffert, soprano sax/singing bowl; 1Michael Kirkendoll, 5John Nichol, pianists; Lance Drege, 4percussionist/6conductor; 6University of Oklahoma Percussion Orchestra / BGR 433

This is one of those CDs that are always a bit of a gamble: an audio version of “publish or perish,” where an academic musician records music by academic composers. In this case, however, I was more than a little intrigued because the first name up was that of Charles Ruggiero, whose music I’ve found over the year to be consistently interesting, engaging, and brilliantly conceived as a synthesis of jazz and classical principles.

Thus I looked forward eagerly to hear his three-part Tenor Attitudes. The first part, “Disciples,” combines elements of Stan Getz, who synthesized elements of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and Joe Henderson, who combined elements of Parker, “the two Sonnys” (probably Stitt and Rollins) and Ornette Coleman. The second portion, “Pathfinders,” combines “Michael Brecker’s Time” and “Coltrane’s Vision” while the third, “Master Storytellers,” blends the styles of Gene “Jug” Ammons, Dexter Gordon, and Sonny Rollins in the three phases of his career: the young lion, his playing with Thelonious Monk, and the older, mature, aged-in-bronze Rollins. All of which would not mean much if the performer had no sensitivity to this kind of music, but happily Jonathan Nichol, Professor of Saxophone at Central Michigan University, has excellent jazz credentials, having played at the Montreux, North Sea and Ford Detroit International Jazz Festivals in addition to solid classical credentials. The only thing I found just a bit off was his tone, which is so “classical” and perfectly centered that he has a little trouble blurring it around the edges in emulating Stan Getz or playing the harder, more tubular tone associated with Trane, but in his favor he knows how to swing and obviously loves the music as much as Ruggiero does. And happily, pianist Michael Kirkendoll also plays with a loose, relaxed beat behind him.

I was particularly taken with the second movement, in which Ruggiero very cleverly transfers the feeling of jazz—those tricky moments when the player has to hold back on the beat just a fraction or press forward just a hair—into his scores. When you combine that with a very obviously outstanding crossover saxist like Nichol, you’re guaranteed of success in performance. Ruggiero is able to classically develop his jazz-based themes in such a way that the average jazz listener would swear it was being improvised, a high compliment indeed. Only a few others, most notably Daniel Schnyder and Nikolai Kapustin, have succeeded as well in doing this. Interestingly, in a movement devoted to a synthesis of Brecker and Coltrane, Ruggiero works with a 5/4 beat like that of Paul Desmond’s famous Take Five.

Also curiously, the Gene Ammons portion on “Master Storytellers” almost has a Pink Panther-like feel to it, particularly the opening section, before Ruggiero sinks back and relaxes both pianist and saxist in a nice medium-tempo blues, complete with a fe growl effects (played to perfection by Nichol). A quote from Bird (Charlie Parker) is thrown in at just the right time to act as a bridge. I was both fascinated and delighted by the way Ruggiero synthesized the music of Sonny Rollins, surely one of the five greatest tenor saxists of the 20th century (the others being Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Coltrane and one name omitted here, Lew Tabackin), into a musical narrative that is coherent as it develops from young Sonny to older Sonny, ending up with a cadenza (“Rollins Alone”), as well it should. This music bears repeated listening; it is a masterpiece!

Following this is Alex Mincek’s Karate for two tenor saxophones, with Nichol joined by Geoffrey Deibel. This is an entirely different style of the kind I call “techno-mechanical,” based on aggressive, choppy rhythms and repeated short phrases or licks. Mincek also calls it “brutal chamber music,” and so it is. I guess it’s a guy thing, because I didn’t like it much after the first 20 seconds or so (it lasts 7:31), though it is certainly technically challenging and the duo plays it very well.

After this came a most attractive piece, the two-part Concentric Circles by Victor Marquez-Barrios, who says he was inspired by a New York Times headline from 2011, “NASA Detects Planet Dancing With a Pair of Stars.” This piece was commissioned by Nichol to premiere at the North American Saxophone Alliance at their 2012 conference at Arizona State University. In the first part, “Two Stars,” Nichol begins with a soft, lyrical theme, played a cappella which is both attractive and memorable—a rare combination in today’s classical music world. Soft piano sprinkles come in behind the soloist, followed by single notes played in both the bass and treble ranges to complement everything the saxist is performing. Eventually the piano takes off on a theme of his own, more bitonal in nature yet somehow still in synch with the sax. Dancing with the stars, indeed! Eventually the piano moves into the upper range and the pair continue to develop their dance. In the second part, titled “Run Dos,” the rhythm is more aggressive, with the piano setting the tempo and pace and the saxophone coming in behind it. The reed player seems somewhat reluctant to join this more rhythmic dance, but does so anyway as the music moves along. What’s particularly interesting about this piece is that, although the rhythm is strongly played by the keyboard (mostly in the bass range), it’s so asymmetric that you have a hard time following it! Eventually the rhythm stops, the saxophone plays a cadenza, then picks up the rhythmic lick while the piano meanders around it, followed by an aggressive and almost improvised-sounding passage. Utterly fascinating and original music; hard to describe, really.

Jeffrey Loeffert’s Bombinate is a strange piece scored for three soprano saxes and a singing bowl, the latter played by the third soprano saxist (I wonder if he has to play singing bowl and toot the horn at the same time?). As Loeffler describes it, “The work is largely centered on concert D…initially sounded by the singing bowl” with the sax parts weaving “in and out of this center pitch through microtonal fluctuations, tone distortions, and articulative techniques.” This could easily translate to “music written by and for academics” if it weren’t so fascinating. It’s also surprisingly intense as well as lyrical, and at the three-minute mark it incorporates the kind of “cluck-tongue” technique used by early jazz saxists of the 1920s. Despite some repetitive moments, Loeffert manages to keep up the listener’s interest by means of these tonal distortions, which inevitably sound like real contributions to the ongoing musical development and not merely effects for the sake of effect.

Mincek returns for Nucleus, another one of those “techno” kind of pieces, here pitting the saxophone against what sounded to me like a click track. I will be merciful and close the door on this piece.

The final work on the CD is David Gillingham’s Supercell, named after and depicting the monstrous thunder-bumpers, complete with hail, gale-force winds and eventually a tornado, that develop over the Great Plains. Scored for alto saxophone and percussion orchestra, Supercell begins somewhay quietly but restlessly, depcting the atmosphric shift from breezy, sunny skies to puffy clouds and eventually the kind of atomic explosion that begins the atmospheric assault. Thanks to Gillingham’s keen ear for music and fine sense of development, what could have been a mere flashy showpiece becomes a fascinating, well-developed piece of music. The ear follows the various stages of the supercell with fascination. As a sidelight, I should mention that I always felt that Ferde Grofé’s “Cloudburst,” which depicts the same sort of storm, was by far the best and most effective piece in his Grand Canyon Suite.

All in all, then, a fine album, with Tenor Attitudes and Supercell being my favorite works therein.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Lipovšek Dominates Martin’s “Der Cornet”

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MARTIN: Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Cristoph Rilke / Marjana Lipovšek, alto; Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Lothar Zagrosek, conductor / Orfeo C 164 881 A

Swiss composer Frank Martin, nearing age 50, was strongly drawn to Rainer Maria Rilke’s collection of brief poems, The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke, but kept saying to himself, “This is far too long for a song cycle.” Really, it wasn’t if you think of Schubert’s Die Winterreise (24 poems/songs), but Martin, always an economical composer by nature, didn’t really want to drag it out. But his wife, who kept translating Rilke’s superb poetry from German to French for him to understand, eventually drew him to the point where he just had to set it to music.

So he wrote this extended orchestral song cycle, almost a monodrama for one singer with orchestra, and it is superb. And not just superb for Frank Martin; superb for this type of music in every respect. He managed to mirror the mood and feelings of the text with unerring accuracy, producing a work that flows from song to song in a continuous fashion. This is why I describe it as a monodrama, and also why it is imperative that the singer be a first-class singing actress.

Because each song is perfectly tailored to the words, and because each poem/song is complete in itself, one can perform some of it without necessarily doing all of it. The same thing, for those who forget, was done with Winterreise for decades. But as in the case of Winterreise, Der Cornet gains in intensity and meaning when you hear the whole thing performed together, in order. Indeed, certain songs, such as Nos. 11 (“Rast”) through 13 (“Und Einer steht”), are musically linked and thus should not be separated.

What makes Der Cornets even more remarkable is that Martin creates this tension with a relatively small orchestra, often using just the strings. The winds and brasses are occasionally brought in for color and occasional dramatic punch, but he very rarely scored the full orchestra to play together as a unit. This not only gives the score of Der Cornets considerable variety, but more importantly, it leaves a “hole” in the score for the voice to come through without having to complete with instruments. For the most part, the music is tonal, indeed even more so than his remarkable opera Le vin Herbé, despite the lack of memorable “tunes” and a disdain for high notes. In short, your average opera lover will hate this piece but most lieder fanciers will love it. I was particularly struck by the edgy waltz tempo set up for “Das Fest”

Lipovšek, one of my all-time favorite contraltos/mezzos, has always been a great interpreter and she is in her element here. Moreover, this was recorded at a time (1988) when her voice was at its very freshest, able to move seamlessly throughout its range at all dynamics levels and with various expressive accents with seamless ease. As for Lothar Zagrosek’s conducting, it’s good without being quite as brilliant as I might have liked. A conductor of genius, like Michael Gielen or Esa-Pekka Salonen, could bring much more out of the score; but then, they might not have had a singer like Lipovšek, and she is too special for me to want to relinquish. The sonics are pretty decent, with the voice recorded forward which I like, without creating much in the way of atmosphere. Best of all, this release—at least in its original format—includes all the lyrics in German, English and French. Well worth seeking out!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Rod Levitt’s Missing RCA Album Reissued At Last!

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FORTY-SECOND STREET / DUBIN-WARREN: Forty-Second Street. Shuffle Off to Buffalo. About a Quarter to Nine. Lulu’s Back in Town. The Gold Digger’s Song. KOEHLER-McHUGH: I’m Shooting High. FREED-BROWN: Alone. WHITING-BULLOCK: When Did You Leave Heaven? ROBIN-RAINGER: Please. MITCHELL-ALTER: Twilight on the Trail. ROBIN-RAINGER: Here Lies Love. KING-JANIS: Paramount on Parade / The Rod Levitt Orchestra: Bill Berry, tpt; Rod Levitt, tb/arr; George Marge, pic/fl/a-fl/cl/t-sax/oboe; Buzz Renn, fl/cl/a-sax; Gene Allen, bar-sax/cl/bs-cl; Sy Johnson, pn/woodblocks/bells; John Beal, bs; Ronnie Bedford, dm/whistle / RCA/Legacy, available only as downloads; no physical CD.

The late trombonist-arranger-composer Rod Levitt (1929-2007) had but four years of fame and success in the music world, 1963-1966, first through the issue of a single album on Riverside (The Dynamic Sound Patterns of the Rod Levitt Orchestra) and then, so he thought, lasting success via a contract with industry giant RCA Victor. But RCA only made three albums with him, Insight (1964), Solid Ground (1965) and Forty-Second Street (1966) before they pulled the plug on him.

The RCA albums did not sell well. The arrangements and compositions were too quirky and eccentric to appeal to the Les & Larry Elgart “businessman’s bounce” crowd but not far out enough to compete with such avant gardists as Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra or Michael Mantler. On the first two albums he wrote and recorded his own material, but for the last of these he wrote updated arrangements of old 1930s pop & movie tunes. The album flopped. End of career.

Several years ago, Insight and Solid Ground came out on a single CD reissue, but neither hide nor hair of Forty-Second Street was to be seen anywhere. Then, just yesterday, I was poking around on Sony Music’s Freegal site, a free and legal music download service provided to large public libraries across the country. On a whim I typed Levitt’s name in, and voila: Solid Ground and Forty-Second Street popped up, available for download or streaming!

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Original side 1 LP label

Well, of course I was excited to find this, so I immediately started listening and was captivated by the tongue-in-cheek humor and camp of Levitt’s arrangements. That was when I searched the Net to find out when the album was reissued. Surprise, surprise: it came out on RCA/Legacy last October 7 (2016). But it’s not available as a hard copy CD, only as downloads, You can buy the tracks on Amazon or stream them for free at Spotify or Muzoic. For free? Yup. So why spend money on the album? Obviously Sony/RCA doesn’t give a crap. So take this music, please.

And what excellent music it is! All of Levitt’s familiar traits—displaced rhythms, substitute chords whose roots suddenly fall out from under you, overlaid counterpoint and his unique knack of scoring an octet to sound like a full orchestra—are present in this album. And, as a little teaser, here is an excerpt from the original liner notes by Willis Conover:

“Well,” Rod Levitt says, “with a little organization and contrast you can get away with anything”—including a club sandwich of camp and jazz and nostalgia, all three. Camp followers, however, are serious about silliness. Rod, like his brother trombonists Vic Dickenson, Dickie Wells, Bill Harris and Tricky Sam Nanton, is serious about his musicianship; he laughs at the silliness.

Rod is a club sandwich himself. He’s thirty-six—looks five years older in photos, five years younger face to face. His Oregon-bred, gee-whiz boyishness is unusual in New York City, but in New York’s musical rat race Rod runs at least Place or Show. He majored in music at the University of Washington, interned with Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the Middle East, and served the community six and one-half years in the Radio City Music Hall orchestra. Now he is leader, composer, arranger and trombonist with his own eight-man band. He thinks of his octet as a orchestra. He thinks of himself as a salesman.

Though he didn’t compose any of the music in this album, some composers may find more composition in Rod’s arrangements of their songs than they gave the songs originally. Here and there, other bandleaders will catch Rod winking at them.

But what of the music? Well, that exhibits Levitt’s usual mixture of innovative orchestration, in which he made is octet sound like a full orchestra, with inventive writing and tongue-in-cheek humor. A drum roll introduces a purposely corny, ricky-tick rendition (with some beats missing in the bars, and a transposition in the middle) of Shuffle Off to Buffalo, one of five songs (nearly half the album) written by the movies’ star duo, Al Dubin and Harry Warren. Levitt did so much juggling of his three reed players, who between them played 12 instruments(!), that you’d swear this was a full jazz orchestra playing. Part of the illusion was created by trumpeter Bill Berry’s amazingly strong tone, which made him sound like a full section. The album’s title track then follows, the tempo brought way down and anchored in the bass notes of the piano and low reeds. Levitt almost makes it sound like a sinister death march. I don’t think devotees of ‘30s movie music were terribly amused by it. In the midst, Levitt sticks a plunger in his trombone and channels his inner Tricky Sam Nanton, followed by a whimsical and tasteful bass solo.

I’m Shooting High comes next, and here Levitt made no ironic comments or major transformation. It’s played in a straightforward manner as a propulsive swing tune, with Berry and Levitt, playing in unison, injecting an infectious riff on and off as the saxes blister their way through some incendiary solos. It has the feel of some of those sleek late-swing bands like Charlie Barnet’s Skyliner group. Alone, sung by Allan Jones in the Marx Brothers’ classic A Night at the Opera, is played by Levitt on trombone as if by a drunken sailor while flutes are all a-twitter above him and Berry’s muted trumpet fills in the background.

Dick Whiting’s classic When Did You Leave Heaven? also receives a somewhat straight swing treatment, this time with two of the reeds doubling Berry to give the illusion of a full trumpet section. Gene Allen’s baritone solo is tasteful and fitting, but it’s the arrangement, with its rhythmic displacements, that steals the show. Levitt then slows the tempo down yet again and plays plunger-muted through theAl Jolson classic About a Quarter to Nine as the reeds play whimsical figures around him. The piano plays a repeated riff while Beal solos, then continues behind Levitt for the ride-out. Someone yells out “About a quarter to nine!” as the song comes to a close.

More cornball musical treatment greets Lulu’s Back in Town, with more rhythmic displacements, until the tempo is halved to back up a fine Allen solo. (Sorry to be obtuse, but I can’t always tell which of the other two are playing the alto solos.) Flutes and piccolos chirp happily behind him in his second chorus, then in the third he doubles the tempo. Then Levitt and one of the reeds plays a descending lick while the trumpet and other reeds peruse a hip figure, which eventually turns into a ride-out which in turn becomes corny again. Lulu is back, indeed.

Please was one of Bing Crosby’s very early hits during his solo career. Levitt’s a cappella trombone introduces it, after which the key shifts upwards and we get a waltz tempo. Another transposition upward for the band, all four of the other front-line musicians playing in unison. Levitt has fun throwing in a few upward rips, Allen returns on baritone, then the whole band kicks into gear before a fine alto solo (probably by Buzz Renn). Levitt returns to ride the tune out. The Gold Digger’s Song (a.k.a. We’re in the Money) is cause for great exuberation by the band, sending up brightly-colored musical skyrockets. Renn solos on alto with an energetic bass and drum backing, then a rare solo by trumpeter Berry. Levitt slips and slides around on ‘bone while the band continues to sparkle around him, then a ride-out.

Levitt band

L to R: Bill Berry, Gene Allen, Buzz Renn, Ronnie Bedford, George Marge, Sy Johnson (w/sunglasses), John Beal, Rod Levitt.

Twilight on the Trail is given the old pseudo-Tunisian treatment that was so much in vogue during the ‘30s, but typically of Levitt, the sound texture is bright and not muted or very mysterious despite brief oboe interludes by Marge. The beat then slides into barrelhouse (or as Bing Crosby used to call it, “tempo di bucket”) for the middle portion of the song, with the drums eventually doubling things up just to confuse you before sliding back into Marge’s oboe and the original beat. Weird stuff!

Here Lies Love is a showcase for the leader’s funky trombone, with the rest of the band injecting some spiffy staccato chords behind him and the rhythm section under him. The ‘30s love fest then wraps up with Paramount on Parade, a song that was played in the movies to introduce the “news of the world” to be followed by the Serial of the Week. (Those under the age of 80 probably won’t know what the hell I’m talking about. Look it up.) This, too, becomes a relatively straight, medium-tempo swinger with little Levitt touches of harmony and orchestration, a fine yet quirky ride-out into the sunset.

No two ways about it, if you’re a fan of interesting jazz arrangements, you won’t want to miss this release. A shame you’ll have to burn your own physical CD because Sony-RCA was to cheap to issue it that way.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Variation5 Explores Odd Wind Quintets

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ARNOLD: 3 Shanties. FRANÇAIX: Wind Quintet. HINDEMITH: Kleine Kammermusik, Op. 24 No. 2. NIELSEN: Wind Quintet / Variation5 / Berlin Classics 885470010007

Variation5 is a fairly new wind quintet who’s trying to make a mark for itself with this first CD release. Like so many modern chamber groups, their aesthetic is marked by brisk tempi, a forward press to the rhythm and extreme clarity in sonic texture. To a certain extent, this eliminates such niceties of expression as rubato, rallentando etc., but the program they’ve chosen consists of works that don’t really rely all that much on such things. Malcolm Arnold’s 3 Sea Shanties, Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik and the Wind Quintets of Françaix and Nielsen all ride the surface, more or less, and are bravura rather than sensitive pieces.

That being said, I found Variation5’s approach so lively, bracing and highly energized that, at least in this program, I didn’t miss those other niceties of detail all that much. Moreover, in certain moments, such as the second of Arnold’s Shanties, I detected moments of relaxation that played well into the feeling of the music. And even in the Françaix, one of my all-time favorite pieces, they managed to find little details and ways of phrasing that even escaped the highly esteemed New York Woodwind Quintet (in the days when John Barrow was still on horn).

After the bracing first movement, the group plays Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik with surprising delicacy and lightness of touch, leading the ear inward to some of his most clever transmutations. Yet it is in the Nielsen Wind Quintet that they really show their mettle, playing the music with a lightness of touch that creates magic of this score. The final movement in particular, with its stream of variations, is really special to hear, and throughout the engineers did a splendid job of capturing the instruments’ timbres, particularly the French horn, which is quite spectacular in the Nielsen.

All in all, a fine debut release, and one definitely worth hearing.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Those Darn Cowboys & Frenchmen are “Bluer Than You Think”!

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BLUER THAN YOU THINK / BRODER: Wayfarer. Companion Plan. Uncommon Sense. HELM: Beasts. Lilies Beneath the Bridge. Bluer Than You Think. C&F Jam. MISCH-BLOXDORF: Clear Head / Cowboys & Frenchmen: Ethan Helm, a-sax/s-sax; Owen Broder, a-sax/bar-sax; Chris Ziemba, pn; Ethan O’Reilly, bs; Matt Honor, dm / Outside in Music (no number)

This disc, slated for release on October 13, is the second by a quintet that calls themselves “Cowboys & Frenchmen.” Since I don’t see any French names in the band and am not sure which ones are cowboys, I’ll have to assume that this is a tongue-in-cheek name.

One thing is for sure: this band is eclectic in a good way. The opening track, Wayfarer, sounded for all the world to me like something Rabih Abou-Khalil would have written, a slow, mesmerizing, Middle Eastern-type piece that begins with the bass playing a sustained low F which signals the band to vacillate between the major and minor around that note. The music is slow and moody, with Matt Honor playing a decidedly Eastern-style drum beat while Chris Ziemba weaves a slow, Arabic-sounding piano line around it. When the two saxes enter, playing in harmony, it is to introduce an entirely new theme, and wonder of wonders, an attractive and memorable one, followed by a truly lovely solo by Owen Broder on baritone sax that intensifies in later choruses, followed in turn by Etham Helm playing a very gutsy alto. It’s the kind of piece that’s so good, and so attractive, that you wish it would go on for 15 minutes, but alas we only get eight.

Helm’s original piece Beasts follows, immediately on the heels of Wayfarer, a strange piece built around a repetitive series of rhythmic triplets played by the two horns, often with the bass grumbling down below, before breaking up into a series of continually-evolving eighth-note patterns that just barely fit into the odd, irregular rhythm beat out by Matt Honor on drums. This strangely interlocking melodic line dominates the proceedings, the only real improvisation being a splashy overlay by pianist Ziemba. This is the kind of piece I live to hear, a truly interesting and original piece using classical principles in a jazz setting. Wunderbar! At 6:30 in the piece the music morphs and changes yet again, then returns to the repetitive string of eighths, which the promo sheet describes as being like the DNA of “an otherworldly creature.”

Broder’s Companion Plan is up next, and finally the spell set up by the first two pieces is broken somewhat by the the slightly funky “Pink Panther”-type beat and the rhythmic lick played by the composer on baritone. Little circular licks played by the two saxes come and go, adding spice and interest to the evolving musical pattern. A great, almost Bossa-Nova-type solo ensues from one of the alto saxists (unidentified in the album art, and since both Helm and Broder play alto it’s hard to say), followed by both altos playing together, then by Broder again on baritone. By now the rhythm has loosened a bit from its opening funk style to, once again, convey overtones of Eastern music (though not as strongly as in Wayfarer). Interestingly, when Ziemba enters on piano, he completely changes the beat to something a bit more complex but also more relaxed, coasting above the rest of the band as the music ends quietly.

Lilies Beneath the Bridge is a ballad, with the two saxists playing a portamento-filled melodic line like something Charles Mingus would have written. (What’s nice about this is that it channels Mingus without being an outright imitation, something I think the crusty old curmudgeon would have actually liked.) Here, Ziemba’s piano solo almost sounds the way Bill Evans did when he played with Mingus (see: East Coasting), filling space beautifully while still maintaining his own identity.

Next up is Clear Head, the only piece on the album written by an outside source, Chris Misch-Bloxdorf. It’s more of a conventional modern-jazz-group sort of piece in outline, but Cowboys & Frenchmen take it apart and put it back together again in a fascinating manner, stressing the music’s underlying structure via repeated and contrasting rhythmic licks. The title tune, Bluer Than You Think, starts out in a Blue Note sort of groove, including a nice chorus by the two altos and a surprisingly “chunky” chorded solo by Ziemba. There’s another really great, gutsy alto solo, again uncredited, but my guess is that it’s Helm because Broder comes in under him at one point on baritone sax, and the later alto solo sounds more like Broder. But I may be wrong. A rare drum solo from Honor follows, with interspersed piano chords, then the out-chorus.

The promo notes indicate that C & F Jam was “inspired by the dueling car stereos on the streets of NYC.” Flutter-tongue alto over sprinkled piano starts it, following which we hear both altoists going against each other in fast-moving counterpoint, with Broder moving to baritone. Call me crazy, but some of this music sounded like Raymond Scott overlaid onto bop (something the iconoclastic Scott would have abhorred)! If this was indeed inspired by dueling car stereos in New York, the denizens of that city must be listening to something other than hip-hop and rock because this music is clearly more complex and far more technically involved! An equally wacky but inventive solo from Ziemba follows against the reverse-rhythm backbeats of Honor, then the ensemble returns to push the music further through a tube into Wonderland. Wild stuff.

The album concludes with Uncommon Sense, a brilliant piece that sounds at the outset almost more classical than jazz—at least, until the two altos, playing in unison, enter to create a flowing line that rides above the fray. The horns drop out to allow bassist O’Reilly to take a solo, with piano and cymbal splashes in the background, following which Ziemba meanders around the keyboard a bit. This is a surprisingly quiet piece for this quintet, although typical in its rhythmic and structural complexity.

The musical descriptions above are my own individual reaction to what I heard, and may not necessarily be yours. Music is the most difficult art to translate into words because it “speaks” its own language and that language is a very complex mathematical system that somehow becomes fluid rather than solid. Nonetheless, there is no question but that Cowboys & Frenchmen is an outstanding group of musical creators, and I certainly look forward to their future endeavors!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Kadesha & Rimmer Play Modern Violin Sonatas

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ENESCU: Violin Sonata No. 3, “Dans le caractère populaire Roumain.” RAVEL: Violin Sonata in G. Tzigane. SKALKOTTAS: Little Suites Nos. 1 & 2 / Jonian-Ilias Kadesha, violinist; Nicholas Rimmer, pianist / Avi 8553640

Here’s a nice program of violin-piano works from three composers writing at different times in the 20th century. It’s always a pleasure to visit, or revisit, music composed in a century in which my life intersected, rather than the same old-timey stuff we hear over and over and over again.

But Jonian-Ilias Kadesha, born in 1992, is a young violinist with an appetite for music based on European folk themes, which is fine by me. His partner, Nicholas Rimmer, is a British pianist who studied music in Hannover, Germany, rounding off his training with lessons from Wolfram Rieger and the Alban Berg Quartet.

First up is Enescu’s sprightly third violin sonata, subtitled “In the popular Rumanian character.” Kadesha plays this with a very light, skimming vibrato, much in the character of folk fiddlers, creating an evocative atmosphere. Rimmer is right with him, nudging the music along in its quirky Rumanian way; as a duo, they are perfectly matched in temperament. The only small caveat I had was that, in soft passages, Kadesha doesn’t always achieve a muted quiet tone, but rather maintains his brightness…a small thing, surely, but noticeable, although he does a good job of playing the edgy, slightly-out-of-tune high soft passages in the second movement. And clearly, he has a good grasp on how to play the remainder of the movement, with its edgy and sometimes vibrato-laden folk-ish tunes. In the lively third movement he is also quite fine.

The Ravel sonata in G (actually, his No. 2) is an unusual piece, with the second movement strongly influenced by the blues and the third influenced by American jazz of the 1920s. Unlike most European composers who tried to write in a “jazz” style, Ravel actually traveled to America and heard the real thing first-hand, in Chicago in 1928. The first movement, however, is folk-influenced, and the duo of Kadesha and Rimmer grasp this concept thoroughly. Their keen sensitivity to dynamic levels and phrasing pays dividends in their performance here. Unfortunately, Rimmer’s rhythm is woodblock stiff in the last two movements, which inhibits Kadesha’s looseness of swing. For a good example of how it should be played, listen to violinist Arabella Steinbacher with the excellent, loose-rhythmed pianist Robert Kulek on Orfeo (Steinbacher & Kulek are even looser in the more formal, less jazzy first movement.)

The music of Nikos Skalkottas was entirely new to me. One of Schoenberg’s prize pupils, he lived a fairly charmed life until 1931, but then encountered poverty and a lack of performance venues. Returning to Greece, he suffered from “composer’s block” until later in life when he streamlined his style. The two Little Suites here date from this later period, and they may be “simpler” but are by no means simple! On the contrary, the first one seems to be written in two different keys simultaneously with a rhythm that plays backwards instead of forwards, and here both musicians have a firm grasp on this tricky and challenging music. Only in the third movement of the first suite does the rhythm finally straighten out, but the harmonies are still on a knife’s edge. In the second suite, Skalkottas maintains his edgy harmonies and rhythm, particularly in the first movement where he tosses in a few pauses just to throw the listener off a bit more. Although the second movement here is a shade lyrical, it is also rather eerie in feeling, whereas the third movement—a brief, slashing piece lasting just under 2 ½ minutes—reverts to the bitonal feeling of the first suite, albeit with a more regular and driving rhythm. There’s an almost Ives-ian moment when it sounds as if he’s quoting “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” for a bar ot two. It drives off a cliff for the ending.

The recital wraps up with Ravel’s Tzigane, and here again its Gypsy connotations play into the talented hands of Kadesha very well. He performs with particular fire and verve, moving through the music with insouciance, and Rimmer manages to keep up with him. Written for Hungarian-born British violinist Jelly d’Arányi, it is a bravura piece (something quite rare for Ravel) which the composer later arranged for violin and orchestra.

All in all, then, a very fine recital but for the last two movements of the Ravel.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Herzogenberg’s Underrated Piano Trios Given New Life

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HERZOGENBERG: Piano Trios Nos. 1 & 2 / Atos Trio / CPO 777335-2

Heinrich Picot de Peccaduc von Herzogenberg, friend to both Brahms and Ethel Smyth, is one of many Romantic composers whose name has slipped through the cracks of history; but unlike many who get revived nowadays, he actually deserves notice.

It would be nice, and easy, to say that he was “just another Brahms imitator” and leave it at that. Nice, but unfair and not wholly accurate. For what, exactly, does it mean to “imitate” Brahms? What it meant, in the late 19th century anyway, was to be serious about the music you wrote, not flippant or trivial, appealing only to the masses; to have a long view of what you were writing and, if possible, to tie your ideas to a clear melodic structure; and, most importantly, to be passionate about what you wrote. This discards a good many composers who were said to be “like Brahms,” including Liszt, who wrote some very good pieces and a large amount of rubbish, and many composers (rightfully forgotten) whose music was so derivative that nothing original came of it. But Ethel Smyth, one of my favorite composers of that era—and a woman who dressed in tweeds, smoked cigars, rode bicycles and had a love affair with Hezogenberg’s wife, Elisabeth (known as Lisl)—was also an admirer of Brahms and one of Herzogenberg’s composition pupils. In fact, Herzogenberg showed Brahms one of her pieces, which Johannes doubted a woman could have written. But he was wrong, and apologized for his mistake.

To get back to Herzogenberg, however, these are powerful, big-boned piano trios, interesting and as far from polite salon music as one could possibly imagine, and the Atos Trio attacks them with gusto. There is an alternate recording of these works by the Arensky Trio, also played with feeling but played at a much slower tempo, with a good deal of rubato which may or may not be to your taste. For me, unless the composer’s name was Schubert or Chopin, I don’t care a whole lot for rubato in my musical performances. I like guts, and the Atos Trio is, symbolically, on fire from first note to last in these interesting works.

Perhaps Herzogenberg’s individuality, particularly in his use of harmony, stemmed from the fact that he was descended from an aristocratic French family. Educated at a Jesuit school before studying law, philosophy and political science, he became drawn to the music of Wagner but after intense studies of the music of J.S. Bach he became more of a classicist.

Herzogenberg had the attractive habit of ramping up both the volume and the intensity whenever he launched into an alternate theme. He also moved the instruments into their upper registers, which automatically gave the music more interest; and he did this in his slow movements as well as the fast ones. His continually interesting melodic lines are actually more memorable than most of Brahms’, and unlike the older composer he seldom dragged out his themes or let the grass grow under his feet. The continually shifting chords also add piquancy to the score, and to my ears his development sections are more organic, i.e., they sound as if an improvising musician were creating the variants out of the original theme(s). The second (slow) movement of the first trio consists of a theme and a series of variations, very much in the Beethoven and Brahms mold, yet somehow Herzogenberg manages to channel some of the former’s excitement along with the latter’s sense of structure. I questioned, while listening, whether or not the variant with the pizzicato cello should have gone quite as quickly as the Atos Trio plays it here, but the effect is certainly exciting, riveting one’s attention. In the ensuing variation, Herzogenberg shifts the focus from pizzicato cello to a continual series of triplets played on the piano, with good effect.

The harmonic leaps in the ensuing scherzo, marked simply “Presto,” will have you on the edge of your seat, particularly the way the Atos Trio plays it. Few of these harmonic jumps would have occurred to Brahms, and if they did, he’d probably have subdued some of them in order to create greater flow. Herzogenberg, however, revels in them, taking the listener on a wild ride.

Surprisingly, the last movement begins not only quietly but mysteriously, like a twilight fog creeping through the streets and around your house. It’s a rare moment of symbolism or, if you will, impressionism in Herzogenberg’s music; after the expected crescendo, however, the tempo becomes quicker and more energetic but the minor-major alternations in the harmony keep the feeling of unease in the music. Even in those moments of what appears to be unbridled exuberance, Herzogenberg keeps pulling the trio—and the listener—back to a slight feeling of unease, bordering on fear. It’s simply a remarkable piece of music by any criteria, and the Atos Trio plays it with gusto.

In the Trio No. 2, written in D minor, Herzogenberg sets up an almost elegiac feeling in the first movement, mitigated in part by the forward press of the “Allegro” tempo. The music shifts back and forth between the home key and its relative major, sometimes within a single bar, keeping the listener off-kilter before pursuing most of the second theme in A major, though going through a series of key changes, including A minor. There’s a remarkable passage around the seven-minute mark where the cello plays a broad, impassioned theme, only to have the piano come crashing down into the middle of it, disrupting the flow and building to an almost fever pitch before turning quiet again The lyrical second movement, in G-flat major, also moves fluidly in its harmony, with occasional dramatic spikes.

In this trio it’s the third movement, “Allegro molto,” that begins mysteriously, and like the first trio Herzogenberg sets up a particularly quirky-sounding 6/8 beat. There’s a surprisingly majestic-sounding tune in the middle of this movement, also in 6/8 but sounding more like a Prussian march, and Herzogenberg works it out in an interesting manner. This last movement begins in a ruminative vein, far less eerie than the last movement of the first trio, and quickly moves into an almost celebratory mood. Almost, but not quite, as Herzogenberg continues to keep us off-balance with his numerous harmonic shifts and the way he tosses the buoyant rhythm around within the trio. Here it’s the third strain, the trio theme, that sounds the most mysterious, with spikes of feverish energy coming and going within it.

Thus Herzogenberg had a great deal going for his music, certainly more than most other Austrian composers of his day. These are first-rate works that need and deserve to be heard, and these recordings are first-rate.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Chasing Bix, the Introverted Enigma

Bix Beiderbecke Legend

“Bix was one of the weirdest guys I ever knew. It wasn’t just that he was absent-minded…I’ve known several absent-minded jazz musicians in my time. It was more like he wasn’t even there half the time. You could be talking to him, and he’d answer you, then suddenly he’d get this glazed look in his eyes and totally lose contact with you. A really strange dude.”

So said the late jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland to me in the fall of 1971 when I, a 20-year-old college student, went to see him perform at a dinner restaurant in New Jersey. I asked him if I could talk to him a while about Bix because I was interested in writing a biography of him, and what better place to start than with the musician who replaced him in the Wolverines Orchestra? Before the next year was out, however, I would meet Ralph Berton, who was putting the finishing touches on a memoir of his personal experiences with Bix as a young man, so I gave up my quest. In a way I was glad I did, not only because of Berton’s book but also because of the even more fact-filled tome compiled by Philip Evans and edited for publication by Richard Sudhalter, which came out a bit later.

Bix Beiderbecke was the first early jazz musician whose work I got to know well from records (young Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives came second). I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school when I bought a white-covered RCA Victor LP, The Bix Beiderbecke Legend (LPM-2323), which I played over and over again, unable to believe my ears. For here was dated ‘Twenties pop music, buried in which was a cornet genius who could make Chateaubriand out of White Castle hamburgers.

At the time I believed, naively, that all white jazz musicians of the 1920s faced this same challenge, and that Beiderbecke was simply more of a genius than the others. The genius part I got right, but it took me decades of listening to other ‘20s jazz discs before I realized that, partly by bad luck and partly by his lack of discernment, Beiderbecke got stuck in these miserable musical settings more often than his peers because he saw them as “classy” and therefore could possibly impress his upper-middle-class family with the wisdom of his career choice, which they detested.

Now, a half-century later and much the wiser, I see Bix for exactly what he was: a modernist playing in a world of dated jazz musicians who deeply impressed and influenced a slew of cornetists and trumpeters, yet who had only an intuitive grasp of what he was doing and otherwise no focus and no direction. Bix Beiderbecke in 1920s music was like moving Igor Stravinsky back to 1870 and having him compete against Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Chabrier. The big difference was that Stravinsky was completely aware of what he was doing with music; Bix was not. Indeed, he often heard his own contributions to performances as “wrong,” ill-conceived, and not fitting in, because they were so different that they had to be wrong. He begged classically-trained cornet players to show him professional fingering but after listening to him play, they refused to do so because what he was doing was so right for him. Bix interpreted this as a backhanded insult, as their saying that he could never play orthodox music because his conceptions were radically different, and therefore thought of himself as “a musical degenerate,” as he told Ralph Berton and Max Kaminsky. Towards the end of his life he wanted to study classical composition but couldn’t read music well enough to grasp what others were talking about. He also couldn’t stay clean and sober long enough to apply himself, not even to music which was the one and only driving force of his life. He died of lobar pneumonia at the age of 28 by contracting a serious chest cold, then lying in his steaming New York apartment in the dog days of August with a miserable fan blowing on him to cool down his fever. He didn’t even have the drive, or the common sense, to pick up the phone and call for help if he couldn’t get up and get to the hospital himself.

Bix plaque

The point is that no normal, halfway healthy young man dies at age 28 from alcoholism. Pee Wee Russell, a much smaller and slighter man than Bix, had several serious brushes with death—one of the worst in 1950—yet managed to pull through. Bix didn’t pull through in part because he didn’t want to and in part because although he could “handle” his booze, it impaired his already poor judgment so badly that he didn’t even have a firm grip on reality. Hoagy Carmichael remembered finding him hiding behind a curtain in the RCA recording studio on May 21, 1930, softly asking his cornet not to let him down. That’s how far out of touch with reality he was.

Divorced of his phenomenal musical genius, Beiderbecke was a helpless emotional cripple. He could no more take care of himself, let alone write great arrangements or compositions, than a kite blowing frantically in a stiff wind. He inspired others with greater musical skills and personal drive, like Red Nichols, Artie Shaw and Rex Stewart, to achieve things using the musical principles he blew through his horn without being able to do so himself. And whether one attributes his astoundingly brilliant solos, in the midst of the most miserable commercial settings, to genius or accident, what remains in the grooves of the old records is a fairly consistent march towards oblivion. Bix Beiderbecke never could appreciate Bix Beiderbecke because he couldn’t understand intellectually what he did or why others found it so fascinating when he found it strange and inadequate.

But Bix had one, and only one, lucky star, and that was his ability to attract the interest and genuine concern of others within the music business who could understand and appreciate what he did and help him codify it. The two most loyal and consistent were C-melody sax player Frank Trumbauer and pioneer jazz arranger Bill Challis, but there were others such as Matty Malneck, Fud Livingston, Tom Satterfield and, to a lesser extent, Benny Goodman, all of whom contributed something important to his musical evolution.

At a remove of nearly a century from the start of Bix’s brilliant but sporadic career, I think it would behoove us to study what he did solely in the context of his greatest achievements, which means in many cases removing the klunky solos, stiff bands and sappy vocalists who all but ruined the effect he made. And these sappy vocalists include the very musical but God-awful strangulations of Trumbauer as well as the hoarse, tawny voice and corny rhythmic approach of young Bing Crosby. I know a great many collectors who prize Crosby’s contributions to the Paul Whiteman recordings with Beiderbecke, but I am not one of them. Crosby’s voice only “settled” and his jazz singing only became good from 1932 onwards, roughly two years after he left Whiteman. And I absolutely can’t stomach the Rhythm Boys.

Moreover, there’s a specific musical and cultural reason to remove the bad soloists, singers and arrangements from surrounding Beiderbecke, and that is that it diverts your attention from the pop aesthetic of the 1920s. There is always the danger that, in coming to appreciate what Bix did, listeners may actually come to like the mediocre and poor settings he played in. As a young teenager, even I was a victim of this. I came to think of George Olsen and his Music and Waring’s Pennsylvanians as “hot” bands from the 1920s. Of course, I was very young at the time and rather naïve, and eventually came around; but I know of several people who really LIKE the ephemera that surrounded Beiderbecke’s playing. You can see them every year at the “Bix Fest” in Davenport, Iowa, as well as in any number of Whiteman revival bands that play those God-awful arrangements (along with the five or six good ones). Many people actually think that Whiteman’s recordings of Mississippi Mud and There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears are great records just because Bix plays lead on them, but he just varies the tunes a little rhythmically and does not play solos on them. They’re just pop garbage on which Bix’s cornet is overlaid. Not worth the effort of listening.

The recordings discussed and detailed below may be found here for free streaming while you read.

  1. The Apprentice

The genesis of Beiderbecke’s style is somewhat shrouded in mystery. All that can be discerned by first-hand evidence is that he played the early recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band over and over again to play along with their cornetist, Nick LaRocca, but in 1921 he met two influential New Orleans musicians, cornetist Emmet Hardy and clarinetist Leon Roppolo, when they came to Davenport and played in a local band for three months. Roppolo’s easy elegance and harmonic audacity clearly made their way into Beiderbecke’s style, but since Hardy never recorded his influence is harder to prove. Nonetheless, Vet Boswell, the youngest and longest-lived of the famous Boswell Sisters, told me in the early 1980s that Bix sounded “just like Emmet.”

We start our journey with three of his earliest recordings, made with the only full-time band of which he was the musical and spiritual leader. This was the Wolverines Orchestra, a hot septet of jazz-inspired college students plus Bix, who never attended college. On the contrary he, like Red Nichols, was sent to a military academy to “straighten him out” when his family realized that he was serious about becoming a musician. Unfortunately for them the military academy at Lake Forest, IL, was in a close proximity to Chicago which was then a hotbed of jazz music. Of the other members of the Wolverines, clarinetist Jimmy Hartwell and pianist Dick Voynow were actually very fine musicians, and it’s a shame that neither had a big jazz career after the band broke up, but with Bix leading the way the band was greater than the sum of its parts. As one can hear in any of their recordings, the band had a loose, relaxed sound, quite different from the hotter, tighter ensemble of their model, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings (a.k.a. the Friars’ Society Orchestra). More interestingly, one will note that Beiderbecke’s playing back then was considerably softer and mellower than it later became. He played with very little force, letting his mellow tone ride easily on the breath, and even used a light vibrato in sustained tones which he later dropped. Excursions into the upper range were rare, and he did not attack those notes with much power but rather touched them lightly.

What made his playing stand out, however, and exert such a strong influence on the band as a whole, was his acute sense of rhythmic timing. This was already quite subtle, so much so that to this day scores of his followers and imitators miss it completely. Listening carefully to the Wolverines’ recordings, one hears him riding over the beat with unerring rhythmic precision. He doesn’t “lay into” the beat yet is always squarely in the middle of each quaver while the rhythm section of banjo, piano, bass sax and drums hangs back on the beat ever-so-slightly. This creates a feeling of tension and relaxation at the same time.

In Riverboat Shuffle, we have a rarity for the Wolverines: the world premiere recording of a piece that would become a jazz classic. And even here, one will notice that the note-choices are different, even in the melody line, than those normally played by most “trad jazz” bands who tried to recreate it:

Riverboat Shuffle first line

In Bix’s solo, one of his greatest on record, he completely rewrites the tune using widely-spaced intervals and, unusually for him, downward chromatic slurs, including one note that just hangs suspended through two full bars. His innate sense of Riverboat Shuffleconstruction allowed him to do this while still retaining a sense of proportion; he literally develops his solo much as a classical composer would sit down and write music out. The result, an entirely new tune based on the chords of Riverboat Shuffle, could have been used as a theme for an independent recording of a different title without anyone who knew the original song being any the wiser. This was considerably different from most other jazz improvisers of his time, whose improvs, though indeed different from the original melody, were not new melodies in themselves but rather notes interlaced around the original tune. This probably doesn’t make much sense to a non-musician, but the more conversant you are with jazz the more you’ll understand what I mean. Bix had an innate sense of melodic construction on a par with some of the finest composers of his time, which is why, in the later phase of his career, he could please many non-jazz musicians who didn’t like jazz solos because they weren’t interesting or cohesive.

Throughout this performance you can hear how well clarinetist Hartwell complements not only Beiderbecke individually but the ensemble as a whole. He listened very carefully to what Bix was playing, even when it was just the lead, and responded with real counter-melodies that made perfect sense. Until late in his career, when he played and recorded with Benny Goodman, Bix never had a clarinetist who could do this as effectively.

Thus I have chosen the last chorus only of Susie, an innocuous pop tune of the time that the Wolverines recorded. The more famous take A is good, but the rejected take B, not issued until many decades later in the LP era, is even better. I have left the nice chromatic break in as well as the ensemble that follows it in order to show how well this band worked together, but it is that final chorus, with Beiderbecke playing lead and Hartwell weaving around him, that is sheer magic. Suddenly the whole ensemble gets up and starts swinging; Hartwell, hearing what Bix is doing in holding back slightly on the beat, holds back even more before responding to him. He even listens to the pauses, adding his own as needed. It doesn’t last very long, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.

I Need Some Pettin’, a Ted Fiorito song that never became really popular, is the basis for one of the Wolverines’ finest arrangements. Beiderbecke was still a few months away from being introduced, in a full-scale manner, to the music of Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky, who were to influence him greatly in the latter phase of his career, but like most jazz musicians of his time he and the band were already being influenced by chromatics and whole tones, which find their way into both the ensemble and George Johnson’s tenor sax solo. Moreover, the whole arrangement of this tune is exceptionally well organized; one even wonders if Bix’s first suspended note, hanging in the air with the light vibrato he would soon dispense of, was originally improvised and then written into the score before recording it. Once again Hartwell is Beiderbecke’s best partner in the final chorus, and the rideout swings in a light, relaxed manner different from most early jazz.

In the fall of 1924 Beiderbecke accepted an offer to join Jean Goldkette’s all-star orchestra in Detroit. Goldkette (1893-1962) was a quixotic figure who claimed to be French and have gotten an American musicians’ union card at the age of 16, but in fact he was born in Patras, Greece, of parents who were not French at all. He also didn’t come to the U.S. until he was 17. He originally lived on a farm in Indiana, then worked in Chicago for a while before settling down i Detroit, where he bought the failing Greystone Ballroom, fixed it up, and made it a prestigious local dance hall. Initially he booked other bands in, but eventually started an orchestra of his own. From the very beginning he sought out the best white jazz talent of his day; by the time Bix joined the band they already had Frank Trumbauer, who would become his best and closest musical partner and friend. Trumbauer (1901-1956), of mixed white and Cherokee ancestry, was the son of a musical mother who directed saxophone and theater orchestras. For whatever reason, Trumbauer bypassed the more common and popular alto, soprano and tenor saxes, instead becoming a virtuoso on the little-used C-melody saxophone. After playing with the Benson Orchestra of Chicago, Ray Miller’s band and the popular Mound City Blue Blowers, he joined Goldkette. One of his first recruits was Beiderbecke, whose playing he admired very much, although on their lone recording date together in 1924 Trumbauer used the pseudonym “George Williams” because he was under contract to the Blue Blowers at the time.

Bix did his best to fit in, but being a weak score reader made it hard for him to cut the sometimes complicated arrangements. He recorded one solo with the band, a full chorus on a weak pop tune called I Didn’t Know, but when he cracked a high note in the last eight bars Victor Records’ A&R man, Eddie King, demanded that he be replaced for the next take. Goldkette responded by letting Bix go, with the caveat that he could return again once he had more professional experience.

  1. The Brilliant Genius Takes Charge

Beiderbecke then went worked in the band of Charlie Straight, then joined Trumbauer, who had left Goldkette voluntarily, in his orchestra in St. Louis. A year and a half later Goldkette begged Trumbauer to return because the band had very little discipline, offering him the position as musical director, but “Tram” would not accept unless Goldkette also re-hired Beiderbecke. Bix’s re-entry into the Goldkette band was a triumphant one. Surrounded by such fine musicians as trumpeter Fred “Fuzzy” Farrar, trombonist Bill Rank, clarinetist Don Murray and especially the New Orleans bassist Steve Brown, the first great bass player in jazz history, he was woven into the fabric of the Goldkette band by their young and innovative new arranger, Bill Challis. Challis wrote a great many hot arrangements for Bix and the orchestra in which he foreshadowed the Swing Era by a decade, including Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down, Clarinet Marmalade, Tiger Rag, I’ve Found a New Baby, The Blue Room, Riverboat Shuffle, Singin’ the Blues, Ostrich Walk and Clementine (From New Orleans), most of which were either never recorded in their day or made their way to records in reduced form, played by Frank Trumbauer’s small orchestra or the six-piece Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang.

The reason for this—once again—was Eddie Smith. A former marching band director, King was adamantly anti-jazz and thus drove most of Victor’s white jazz talent crazy by insisting on sweeter, more melodic arrangements, usually featuring vocalists who could sell the lyrics. He let Paul Whiteman record anything he wanted to because Whiteman was the biggest name and best-seller of his day, but others weren’t so lucky, particularly not an out-of-town group of white guys from Detroit. King wanted to sell records, not the Goldkette band, thus their only two really hot records, My Pretty Girl and Clementine, were made during recording sessions directed by the more jazz-friendly Nathaniel Shilkret.

Goldkette band

A rare photo of the Goldkette band in Detroit with Bix on cornet (third from left), Trumbauer seated in front with Howdy Quicksell, and Goldkette himself pretending to be the band’s pianist!

Of course, Challis managed to stick Bix into most of the records they made, usually playing solo over the ensemble during the ride-out or an occasional break, but the grind became demoralizing. What saved the day on occasion was a trick that Challis came up with: the hot brass trio. He would hear Bix play a solo during a performance of a tune on the bandstand, transcribe it, and then score it for cornet and two trumpets. This became the first hot brass ensemble in jazz history, and Challis continued to write similar scores for Beiderbecke once both of them moved to the Whiteman band.

But first, let’s listen to two samples of the hot portions of otherwise non-hot Goldkette records. First is the out-chorus of the popular tune In My Merry Oldsmobile, recorded and issued on a special non-commercial disc for Oldsmobile Company employees and stockholders. It’s amazing that Bix could maintain his fire playing in such a situation, but he did, and we can hear how the intervening couple of years had led him to revamp his style. No longer was he playing such a “soft” cornet with the light vibrato; he was blowing a tremendous amount of air through his horn, which made the tone considerably brighter without somehow incurring hardness. Jazz guitarist Eddie Condon, with whom he never recorded, once described it as being like “shooting bullets at a bell.” Moreover, we can also hear the greater assurance and harmonic audacity he was now using in his playing.

In Sunday, Challis had to write a conventional opening chorus and bridge which led to a nasal vocal by a rather pathetic vaudeville trio called The Keller Sisters and Lynch. Up through that point, the only interesting feature was a wonderful break by pioneer guitarist Eddie Lang. Neither Lang nor his childhood friend, jazz violinist Joe Venuti, were ever regular members of the Goldkette band—on the contrary, they were under contract to the wealthy, jazz-loving Roger Wolfe Kahn, son of millionaire Otto Kahn—but Kahn allowed his musicians free rein in recording other dates on the side, and they enjoyed playing for Goldkette. (They also made guest appearances in the bands of Don Voorhees and Whiteman himself, though the latter finally did hire the duo once the Kahn band broke up in late 1928.)

But happily there were the Bix and his Gang records and Trumbauer sides, all made for the rival OKeh company at a time when the musicians were otherwise under contract to Victor, and OKeh loved jazz musicians. The sad thing is that Beiderbecke’s own personal exposure through the label was so circumscribed: six sides with sidemen from the Goldkette band, then a year later six more with sidemen from the Whiteman band which were markedly inferior in terms of swing and musical invention (Bix, as usual, excepted). Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down is fascinating due to the fact that, although generally using a reduction of the Challis arrangement for the full Goldkette orchestra, the small band invented their own introduction in which they attack a note together and then slide chromatically upward through a group portamento into the first notes of the melody. Bix is simply crackling here, as he is on all of the 1927 Bix and his Gang sides, and in his brief solo he takes charge and raises the heat to a new level. Bass saxist Adrian Rollini, whose playing was almost as inventive as Bix’s, was also never a regular member of the Goldkette band, but he was well known in the New York area and was only too happy to play on these records with Beiderbecke.

Goose Pimples has a legendary back story, courtesy of Ralph Berton in his book Remembering Bix: A Memoir of the Jazz Age. According to Berton, Beiderbecke dropped by his apartment one afternoon with test pressings of some of the Gang sides under his arm and played them. As usual, he praised every note played by the others and turned up his nose at his own solos, but brought special attention to Goose Pimples. Berton was absolutely thrilled by the last chorus, in which Bix played, unusually, entirely in his high range, blasting out high notes like Louis Armstrong, but Beiderbecke wasn’t fazed. “You like that thing?” he asked when it was finished. “You’re as dumb as they are…they (the record company) liked it, too.” He then pointed out that he accidentally came in during Frank Signorelli’s piano solo (you can hear it on the record) and thus thought the take was ruined, so at another point he played a corny, two-note “Charleston lick.” But the engineer gave no sign of stopping the recording; rather, he encouraged him to go on; and so Bix, in a rare fit of pique, got angry and blasted out the last chorus through his horn as a protest. Whether you choose to believe the story or not, it is certainly one of Beiderbecke’s most exciting recordings.

On October 13, 1926, the Goldkette orchestra played in a “battle of the bands” at the Roseland Ballroom in New York opposite Fletcher Henderson’s highly-touted group. Filled with such sizzling soloists as trumpeters Joe Smith and Tommy Ladnier, clarinetist Buster Bailey and star tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, the Henderson band went first and trotted out their hottest arrangements. In response, the Goldkette musicians counted off a 6/8 beat and played the popular Spanish tune, Valencia, which made the Henderson musicians laugh. But they weren’t laughing that hard when the band then launched into My Pretty Girl, in which Bix rode the brasses down from start to finish and there were hot solos along the way by clarinetist Danny Polo, alto saxist Doc Ryker, and Steve Brown’s powerhouse bass stomping on down behind Bix and the trumpet section.

The Henderson band of the 1920s was a powerhouse organization that prided itself on being able to play in difficult keys, such as F-sharp and D-flat. Their soloists were all virtuosi; but the band didn’t swing so much as it stomped. The stomp rhythm was one inherited from New Orleans but filtered through the melisma of New York jazz during the Prohibition Era. It was more of a 2/4 than a 4/4 beat, and the various soloists all played fast, flashy, and virtuosic. Coleman Hawkins, in particular, was not the same tenor saxist who wowed audiences of the Swing Era with his moody, well-sculpted solos, but rather a virtuoso who loaded up his playing with rapid triplets and double-time runs. That being said, the band generated a great deal of heat.

I’ve tried to recreate the feeling of this band battle by choosing three hot tunes played by both orchestras—although recorded by the full Goldkette band in only one instance. Interestingly, one of the pieces in the Goldkette book—unrecorded, like so much of their best work—was The Stampede, a Henderson specialty. First up is Henderson’s 1926 recording of Clarinet Marmalade, one of their few performances of a Dixieland standard, updated here by the resourceful arranger Don Redman. At times, the Henderson band’s ensemble playing could be surprisingly sloppy, but in these tracks it is tight and crisp. Of the soloists presented, the most interesting by far is New Orleans trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, whose playing is original and full of surprises.

But as cornetist Rex Stewart said years later, Bix just devastated all of them with his brilliance, his drive, and his swing. Although the full Goldkette band didn’t record Challis’ arrangement of Clarinet Marmalade, we turn to the Trumbauer recording, where Beiderbecke dominates from start to finish. Indeed, he is playing with so much ferocity and energy here that he undoubtedly overwhelmed the band in the recording studio…you can hear it. There’s also an interesting variation on the original tune played by Bix and a couple of reeds in the middle of the piece, a passage far more sophisticated than anything the Henderson band was doing at the time.

sorryThe Henderson recording of Sorry proves that it wasn’t just Goldkette who was sometimes saddled with sappy vocalists, although in this case the singer is Andy Razaf, one of Fats Waller’s regular lyricists. I couldn’t cut the vocal in this case because there is a surprise key chance at the end of it, typical of Henderson’s and Redman’s flashy style. As an overall performance it is more interesting and flashier than the Bix and his Gang version that follows it, but again, listen to Bix. In addition to his newfound power in playing lead, he now uses minute time fractioning in the beats, holding back or pressing ahead by a millisecond in order to propel the whole band. Bill Rank’s trombone solo almost sounds pathetic by comparison: he clearly can’t keep up with the cornetist, though he tries to be clever. This is pretty much Bix’s record from start to finish. I deleted Don Murray’s clarinet solo that opened it because it was choppy and unswinging, misleading the ear for what was to come.

Since the Henderson band didn’t seem to play or record My Pretty Girl until 1931, I led off here with the Goldkette performance. This is one of their great gems, with Bix lifting the rhythm and pounding down the brass trio from start to finish. The mostly very fine remake by the Nichols-Duffee International Jazz Orchestra from October 2012 lacks bite in the brass because, as I’ve said several times, no one ever played or plays cornet with the forceful attack or brilliant tone that Beiderbecke possessed. Venuti pops in here on violin for a few breaks, though he wasn’t a member of the band. Trumbauer’s little 8-bar solo towards the end fits in very nicely as well.

My Pretty GirlThe Henderson version is actually pretty good, but despite having five years to come up with a version it still can’t hold a candle to the Goldkette recording. Fine solos abound—by this time, Hawkins was starting to play more orderly and less flashy solos—and in this instance I was able to delete the pathetic-sounding vocal. Taken on its own merits it’s a very good performance, but it’s still not Bix, the brasses, and Steve Brown. Not even close.

Clementine (From New Orleans) was a popular song of the time that Challis arranged for the band, but by the time they recorded it it had been modified somewhat by Murray, Trumbauer and Howdy Quicksell. It’s one of Goldkette’s rare masterpieces, taken at a relaxed but swinging medium tempo with everyone pitching in. For once, Beiderbecke doesn’t dominate; his solo sounds natural, as if it has been written out for him. On this date Venuti was absent but Lang was in, playing some nice fills on guitar.

Another great Challis arrangement that wasn’t recorded by the full band was Three Blind Mice, subtitled “Rhythmic Theme in Advanced Harmony.” Somehow or other, the nine-piece band assembled for this recording date sounds like a full orchestra and does complete justice to the piece. From the catchy little intro to the finale, the richness of the scoring, filling in the lower harmonies with Rank’s trombone and Adrian Rollini’s bass sax, impresses one with its relaxed swing and continual inventiveness. This is almost as great a recording as Clementine, and once again Bix stars with a sterling solo yet falls back into the ensemble when he’s finished to give Lang a shot at a solo, yet it is Rollini who almost matches Beiderbecke’s brilliance. To show you how unfocused he was, however, he rerecorded this tune less than two months later with a small band of Goldkette men (and Lang) under the name of the Chicago Loopers, and the performance is loose, sloppy and unremarkable except for the solo contributions of Tram and Bix, the latter clearly not at his best. Clarinetist Don Murray, in particular, sounds squally and off-key.

Singing the BluesSingin’ the Blues, one of Challis’ finest scores, is given in reductio here by the Trumbauer septet (the Henderson orchestra recorded the full arrangement in 1931 with Rex Stewart playing Bix’s solo as a tribute to him). Everything in this perfect little gem works to perfection, with Beiderbecke’s solo—the one considered his greatest—crowning the whole like a golden tiara. By contrast, I’m Coming, Virginia is a limp noodle of a record. I’ve included Tram’s bridge as an indication of how sad and pathetic everyone sounds on this record…until Bix lights up the sky with his gem of a solo. Truly, a musical voice crying in the darkness.

When you listen to these recordings, you realize that Challis was rightly considered the jazz arranger who blurred the distinction between 2/4 Dixieland time and the 4/4 beat that became popular after 1932, but with no disrespect to Challis you wonder if it wasn’t a case of the cart (Beiderbecke) leading the horse (Challis), since he would clearly not have had some of these ideas were it not for Bix.

  1. The Impressionist

Fully conversant with the harmonic language if not the form of French classical music, Beiderbecke began noodling at the piano, his second instrument, which he played competently if not brilliantly, searching for melodic lines to suit what he heard in his mind. As usual, he didn’t think very highly of his efforts, but Challis and Trumbauer did and encouraged him. He made a couple of records in which he accompanied Tram at the keyboard (Wringin’ and Twistin’ and For No Reason at All in C), but shied away from recording any original pieces. Challis wove whole-tone scales and advanced harmonies into his Goldkette arrangement of Riverboat Shuffle, one of the few piece that Bix recorded twice that were brilliant in both incarnations. Sped up to a hot Charleston pace, the music sizzled and burned in Trumbauer’s recording of it, with Lang and Beiderebecke front and center in the harmonic development. Note, too, how Challis re-wrote the introduction to the piece to fit this new concept.

In a MistOn September 8, 1927, Trumbauer convinced the A&R man at OKeh records to let Bix improvise an entire piece at the keyboard. It was arranged that he would tap Beiderbecke on the shoulder when they had a half-minute to go on the recording so he could wrap things up. The result was In a Mist, surely one of the most unique and original pieces of music composed during the Jazz Age, although some writers have had the audacity to relegate it to the category of “novelty piano” like Zez Confrey’s Kitten on the Keys. In a little under three minutes, Beiderbecke created whole cloth out of threads and scraps of ideas that he had floating around in his mind. After it was issued as a recording, the music publisher Robbins contacted Bix and asked to publish it. They also asked him to write three more such pieces to create a “suite.” Since Bix wasn’t a good reader, he had Challis transcribe the recording for him, but wasn’t happy with In a Mist the way it stood and wanted a contrasting theme in the middle. Unable to conjure one up, Jack Teagarden whistled the bridge, Challis wrote it down, and it became part of the piece.

In a Mist music

Of the three remaining piano pieces Beiderbecke composed, Candlelights was the most “complete” and interesting, but he never recorded it himself. Eight years after Beiderbecke’s death pianist Jess Stacy, who had heard Bix play the piece for him at his apartment once, recreated the composer’s own style in a remarkable recording for Commodore. I have included it here because it does indeed sound a great deal like Beiderbecke himself, with that slightly angular sense of rhythm and forward propulsion that 99% of pianists who play the piece miss entirely. In 1938 pianist-arranger Joe Lippman scored all four of Bix’s piano pieces for a small band led by trumpeter Roland “Bunny” Berigan. The recordings were remarkably good and artistically successful, one of the first such instances of a later jazz musician re-imagining the jazz-classical hybrids of a predecessor.

  1. Whiteman Days

In September of 1927 Jean Goldkette, no longer able to meet the payroll for his band of high-priced stars, was forced to disband. Many people, myself included, assumed that this was the last “Jean Goldkette and his Orchestra” before the late-‘50s revival, but this was not so. He managed to create a new orchestra of fine but lesser-known musicians in 1928, which he kept going for two years, while also managing the hot bands of William McKinney and a Canadian group called the Orange Blossoms. McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, as his band was called, played loosely arranged hot jazz and was pretty much passé by 1930, but the Orange Blossoms continued to thrive, changed their name to the Casa Loma Orchestra, and named sacist Glen Gray Knoblaugh as their leader despite being one of the first co-op bands.

But the big-name Goldkette musicians were now on their own. A clutch of them received an almost immediate offer from Paul Whiteman, the self-dubbed “King of Jazz,” whose bloated, overblown dance and concert orchestra only dipped a toe in jazz occasionally. They turned him down, preferring to go into an orchestra being formed by their friend and jazz colleague, bass saxist Adrian Rollini. Rollini’s “New Yorkers” band was pretty much an all-star bunch that included five of Goldkette’s biggest names: Bix, Tram, Don Murray, Bill Rank and Chauncey Morehouse (with Challis as arranger). They landed a good gig at a prestigious New York restaurant and a brief recording contract with OKeh, where they mysteriously recorded under the name of “Benny Meroff and his Orchestra,” but in late October there was a serious fire in the restaurant and they had to close, leaving the band out of work. After scuffling around town for a week or two, Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, Steve Brown and Challis finally accepted a lucrative offer from Whiteman and the “jazz invasion” of the “dancing elephant band” was on.

I have broken my rule of omitting weak introductions and vocals from recordings in the case of Mary (What’re You Waitin’ For), a Walter Donaldson tune, because it illustrates more clearly than almost any other Whiteman band of the period what they were fitting into. After a harmonically angular but weak-sounding intro, the first soloist we hear is not Bix but Henry “Hot Lips” Busse, the German muted-trumpet player who was a big favorite of the Whiteman crowd. Following this, however, a Bix-led brass trio backed by Brown on bass comes storming into the picture, livening up the proceedings considerably; then a sappy violin transition, and we hear young Bing Crosby’s slightly hoarse high baritone and rather corny phrasing singing the lyrics. After this there is a Trumbauer-led reed trio playing a variant on the melody, Beiderbecke playing a seven-bar solo, then Busse returns before Bix, Brown and the brasses shout him down and ride out the record. A weird mixture of styles, indeed.

This was not, however, Beiderbecke’s first recording for Whiteman. That took place two days earlier in another Donaldson tune, Changes, which was dominated by Crosby and his “hot” vocal trio, the Rhythm Boys. Bix only appears in the last part of the record for a full-chorus solo, but what a solo! It is the first of his to be played entirely muted, something his fans weren’t used to hearing, but even with the mute in he is expelling so much air through the horn that the cornet tone burns itself into the brain. Repeated listening to this solo will pay dividends, showing you just how brilliantly Bix could compose entirely new tunes on the chords of a pop dud.

The band’s first full-scaled hot experiment was Challis’ new arrangement of a 1924 Whiteman hit, San. Here he applied the concept of the hot brass trio as he had worked it out with Goldkette, but instead of using Steve Brown on bass he chose to bring in Bix’s old bandmate from the Wolverines, Min Leibrook, on bass sax, evidently like the effect that Rollini’s bass sax had in the “Bix and his Gang” sides. But Leibrook couldn’t swing like either Rollini or Brown, drummer Hal McDonald kept hitting the cymbals on the wrong accent beats, and the resultant performances, though exciting for Beiderbecke, came out stiffly for the rest of the band. They struggled through eight takes on January 12, 1928, each one being stiffer than the last, and eventually chose to release take 6 in 1928 because Bix was at his freshest here, creating a truly interesting solo in the first chorus. A decade later, however, Victor chose to replace it with take 8 because in take 6 the brasses rushed the beat somewhat in the first bar, and also because, although Beiderbecke was not as inventive, what he played clearly “fit in” better with the original melody. This then became the preferred take of this tune forever more on 78 and LP. I have, however, chosen the earlier take because of its freshness of conception. Obviously, someone back in 1928 clearly felt this was the version to issue, and all in all I can’t complain.

From Monday OnWhiteman’s next really hot record was From Monday On, a song written by Crosby and his fellow Rhythm Boy Harry Barris. Here I included the five-and-a-half vocal intro to Bix’s incendiary solo as sung by the Rhythm Boys to indicate what he had to put up with, but have omitted Crosby’s solo. To hear Bix rip into the record, particularly on the early take from February 13, 1928, will hit your consciousness like an exploding bomb. Arranger Matty Malneck wrote a surprisingly hot chorus for three jazz violins, , following which a cornet trio of Bix, Charlie Margulis and Jimmy Dorsey stomp it on down for two full choruses with Steve Brown’s bass kicking butt in the background. It is certainly one of the most exciting jazz records that Whiteman ever made, but for some strange reason it was withheld from publication. More takes were made 15 days later, and this is the session from which the 1928 recording was issued, but by this time Brown had quit, Leibrook on bass sax. The take with Brown on bass wasn’t issued until 1938, a decade after it was recorded. when it became an instant classic.

One would think, in jumping from Mary to San and From Monday On, that Whiteman was taking a very “hot” approach to his new book, but you’d be wrong. Between those sessions were a slew of recordings that were anything but hot—Parade of the Wooden Soldiers, Ol’ Man River, Together, Ramona, O Ya Ya, Dolly Dimples, My Heart Stood Still, Back in Your Own Back Yard, Chloe, A Shady Tree and Sunshine—mixed in with a few good discs like Dardanella, Lonely Melody and There Ain’t No Sweet Man. This grind really got to Tommy Dorsey, who threw in the towel at the end of 1927, to be replaced by former Goldkette trombonist Bill Rank, in addition to Brown. Apparently the last straw for Brown was the February 14, 1928 session, which produced the deathless Grand Fantasia from Wagneriana, Parts 1 & 2. Brown was gone by the next day (February 15), on which tuba player Mike Trafficate briefly switched to string bass, with Leibrook coming in permanently soon after.

Since Whiteman’s orchestra played far more gigs and made many more recordings than Goldkette’s, the grind really started to get to Beiderbecke. Still drinking heavily, he was sometimes so confused that he didn’t know where he was or supposed to go. There’s a famous story of one gig for which he missed the band’s train, having slept in, so he chartered a private plane and arrived hours before the orchestra. He checked into his hotel room and, being early, laid down for a nap. You don’t have to guess the rest. Bix slept through the entire gig, waking up with a hangover around 2 in the morning.

By April 1928 Bix started playing muted more often because it saved him the energy of trying to play so forcefully all the time. Challis wrote a particularly nice arrangement of Louisiana for him, from which I have only removed Crosby’s vocal. A nice, Trumbauer-led reed trio plays a variant on the melody after the introduction, then came Crosby’s vocal and Bix’s wonderful full-chorus solo. I have spliced together both of his solos from the different takes to illustrate how inventive and original he could be, even a few minutes apart. It was said that the issued take strongly influenced tenor saxist Lester Young, who based his song Tickle Toe on it, but had he heard the alternate take, Tickle Toe might have turned out quite differently!

In the spring of 1928 Whiteman accepted a lucrative two-year deal to switch labels from Victor to Columbia. In addition to paying him more per side, Columbia also gave him his own special label, with a cartoon image of his head next to his name in large letters. These became known among musicians as the “Whiteman potato head” records. The sound was bright and clear but glassy, giving added brilliance to Beiderbecke’s cornet but robbing the orchestra of some of its warmth. Whiteman made a promotional film short celebrating his new contract, and in this film you can see Beiderbecke step into camera range with the trumpets, playing a muted trio on a corny pop tune called My Old Ohio Home. Even in black and white you can’t miss the fact that his eyes are badly bloodshot. He was clearly going further downhill in health. Whiteman purportedly tried to mitigate the damage by having Bix share train berths and hotel rooms with Crosby, but Bing was himself a heavy drinker in those years so it didn’t help a whole lot.

Felix the CatThere were some hot records made for Columbia, particularly China Boy and the last hot-brass-trio disc, Oh! You Have No Idea, but for the most part Whiteman was pursuing an even more commercial path during his time with the label. An interesting exception is Felix the Cat, a really burning arrangement by Tom Satterfield (another one of the band’s talented but hopeless alcoholics) marred by the emasculated vocal of one Austin “Skin” Young and some corny cat meows during Bix’s solo spots. Nonetheless, I’ve distilled the best of this side to indicate once again how the young cornetist from Davenport could transform a piece of schlock.

Bix wasn’t so lucky when Whiteman asked Challis to write an arrangement of Sweet Sue for his “concert band.” Challis should have seen what was coming but accepted anyway. The first half of the record is a dismal affair, with a bland oboe solo, meandering strings and continual slow-downs of the tempo; then, after an uptempo muted brass break, we finally hear Beiderbecke playing a full chorus into a derby. It is one of his greatest solos of all time, perhaps underrated because of all the ephemera surrounding it. I have included just the solo and the final (slowed down) chorus as an example.

In 1929, Challis scored his small-band arrangement of Singin’ the Blues for a fuller orchestra, using the Trumbauer-led reed chorus and writing out Bix’s solo for him to play, but when Beiderbecke tried it he said it was unplayable! Not wanting to waste the score, he and Trumbauer called on jazz-friendly vaudeville singer Bee Palmer to sing Bix’s chorus to the original lyrics, which she did. The record was made, and was supposed to be issued under the cumbersome credit of “Paul Whiteman Presents Frank Trumbauer and his Orchestra with Bee Palmer,” but Palmer’s shrill, nasal voice so disturbed the Columbia executives that they shelved the record and never released it. It has since turned up on YouTube for free streaming.

  1. The Bix-Tram chase choruses

Beiderbecke and Trumbauer were particularly noted among musicians for the astounding brilliance of their chase choruses, those moments where two musicians share two- or four-bar exchanges. Because Tram really listened carefully to Bix and vice-versa, they were always able to dovetail their ideas into one unbroken improvisation lasting an entire chorus. Trumbauer shared Beiderbecke’s love of whole tones and unusual harmonies, but his approach was always slightly different. He was the sly, whimsical commentator to Beiderbecke’s more audacious and sometimes more aggressive approach.

I have included the three best and most famous of their chase choruses, shorn of the pop ephemera that surrounded them. Just an Hour of Love, a sappy pop tune played by Rollini’s New Yorkers, had the chase chorus follow a bland vocal by Irving Kaufman. Again, it is astounding how completely Bix could rewrite a tune at the drop of a hat. This ability has led many scribes to attribute this to his “wearing blinders” and his “indomitable spirit,” but I don’t think it was either. He was always thinking ahead to what he could do to improve a tune, often by just a bar, before jumping in and doing so. Indeed, in certain songs that simply had uninteresting chord changes, like Dardanella and There Ain’t No Sweet Man, his playing was as unexceptional as the tune no matter how much time he had to come in, whereas songs with quick-moving chords piqued his interest.

BorneoI have included the whole of Borneo, except for Scrappy Lambert’s corny vocal (with its racist lyrics), in order to illustrate how well the duo could operate when they were running the show themselves. This recording is remarkable for the clear and brilliant high note that Bix hits at the end of the eight-bar intro as much as for the chase chorus, which in this case includes pregnant pauses and a moment where both soloists dovetail each other. On the Whiteman recording of Rodgers and Hart’s You Took Advantage of Me, despite the stiff performance and corny arrangement, Beiderbecke was clearly engaged mentally in the proceedings which allowed him and Trumbauer to produce a masterpiece.

Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home was recorded in April 1929, when Bix was clearly struggling with control and so continued to play solos into a derby. It’s not a chase chorus in the sense that the previous three recordings are, but rather a full chorus by Trumbauer followed by a full chorus by Beiderbecke, yet the musical telepathy these two shared was clearly still intact. Trumbauer’s strained-sounding vocal has been omitted.

Shortly after this session, Bix collapsed onstage during a performance with the Whiteman band. Paul sent him home with strict instructions to dry out and return “a new man.” When Bix arrived at the family homestead, he discovered to his shock and dismay that all of the recordings he had been sending home to his family to listen to, even the ones with the highly-prized Whiteman, were sitting on the top shelf of the hall closed, still in their stiff cardboard envelopes, unopened and unplayed. His family didn’t care about his career.

Bix did indeed dry out—it took nearly a year—and returned to New York, perhaps not in the pink of health but certainly better than when he left it. He kept telling jazz cronies like Eddie Condon, Trumbauer and others that he wanted to study music seriously and become a composer. Why he didn’t just do so remains yet one more unanswered question in a brief life filled with them. Surely he could have gone to Duke Ellington, if no one else, and ask for help. I’m sure Ellington would have been happy to direct him to Will Vodery, the man who taught him all he knew about classical form and composition. But Bix just fell back into his old life of boozing around and grabbing recording dates when he could, and in short order he was clearly in no shape to return to Whiteman.

  1. The prophet of Swing

It can, I think, be said that Beiderbecke was a harbinger of the Swing Era just as he was a harbinger of early bop and cool jazz. There weren’t many musicians, black or white, who could play with the rhythmic looseness and invention he displayed: Louis Armstrong, certainly; Jimmy Harrison, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden and drummer Gene Krupa. Those were about it in 1930. Fortunately, he was lucky enough to fall into their orbit for some of his last great recordings.

Prior to this, however—in fact, prior to his breakdown—Beiderbecke played on a particularly good Matty Malneck arrangement of Jimmy McHugh’s popular song Futuristic Rhythm. Malneck, who also wrote the arrangement of From Monday On, doesn’t get much credit in many Beiderbecke biographies, but the wonderful rolling beat of this performance and the relaxed rhythm of the brasses mark it as an exceptional example of early swing. Critics note the one cracked top note in Bix’s solo without crediting his remarkable construction, and in the ride-out with Andy Secrest both cornetists play excellent lip trills in unison. I’ve removed Trumbauer’s vocal from this one, too.

As mentioned earlier, Beiderbecke was in poor shape for the May 21 recording session, the only one he ever made with an African-American musician…and not an insignificant one, either. James “Bubber” Miley was Duke Ellington’s first great grow trumpeter, and some think the best he ever had, but like Bix, Bubber was a chronic alcoholic and was fired by Ellington in early 1929 for missing gigs and being drunk on the job (Cootie Williams replaced him). Miley lived only one year longer than Bix, and in this recording of Rockin’ Chair there is a remarkable moment when Bubber opens up and takes charge with a hard, gritty solo and Bix falls in behind him, playing downward bluesy slurs. This moment only lasts a few seconds, but it is superb nonetheless. It also doesn’t hurt that both are kicked along by the persuasive drumming of Gene Krupa.

Krupa was also present on the Beiderbecke recording session of September 15, which produced two takes of a really bad song called Deep Down South with an equally bad vocal by one Wesley Vaughan. But Benny Goodman was also on that session, and the three of them—Bix, Benny and Gene—wake up and discover the Swing Era five years early in the final choruses. Likewise, the second tune recorded on May 21, Barnacle Bill the Sailor, somehow woke Beiderbecke out of his stupor and kicked him a decade into the future. The song itself is pretty silly, sung in 6/8 time by Hoagy Carmichael and Carson Robison, but Joe Venuti’s eventual refrain of “Barnacle Bill the shithead” seemed to loosen everyone up for the hot interludes. The first featured Beiderbecke and Krupa, the second Goodman, Bud Freeman and Krupa. I’ve spliced them together to give you 40 seconds of the hottest swing music you’ll ever hear in your life!

We end our survey of Bix Beiderbecke playing Strut, Miss Lizzie, again with Goodman and Krupa, this time adding a chorus by the great trombonist Jack Teagarden. Venuti is also on hand to contribute a hootchy-koochie violin break and make fart noises through his hands during the ride-out. A strange but somehow endearing record, which by rights should have been Bix’s last.

So where are we now in regards to Bix Beiderbecke? Have you come to see and hear him in a different light from how you thought of him before? Has this article enhanced your appreciation of him? I’d like to know. As much as I adored Bix during my teen years and into my early 30s, I pushed him aside for a long while in order to pursue and learn about other, more contemporary musicians whose music I also loved, but when you return to him and strip away all the ephemera around him, what you’re left with—the distillation of his musical essence—is still pretty amazing. What a shame he could never get it together.

Bix headstone

  1. Riverboat Shuffle (Hoagy Carmichael-Dick Voynow)/The Wolverines Orchestra: Bix Beiderbecke, ct; Jimmy Hartwell, cl; George Johnson, t-sax; Dick Voynow, pn; Bobby Gillette, bj; Min Leibrook, tuba; Vic Moore, dm. (May 6, 1924)
  2. Susie [take B] (Clayton Naset-Gus Kahn)/same as above.
  1. I Need Some Pettin’ (Gus Kahn-Ted Fiorito-Bob King)/same personnel (June 20, 1924)
  1. In My Merry Oldsmobile (Bryan-Edwards)/Jean Goldkette & his Orchestra: Fred Farrar, Ray Lodwig, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Bill Rank, Newell “Spiegle” Willcox, tb; “Doc” Ryker, a-sax; Frank Trumbauer, C-sax; Don Murray, cl/bar-sax; Eddie Lang, gt; Joe Venuti, vln; Irving Riskin, pn; “Howdy” Quicksell, bj; Steve Brown, bs; Chauncey Morehouse, dm. (May 23, 1927)
  1. Sunday (Benny Krueger-Ned Miller-Jules Styne-Chester Cohn)/Jean Goldkette & his Orchestra: same personnel as above (October 15, 1926)
  1. Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down (Ray Lodwig-Howdy Quicksell)/Bix Beiderbecke and his Gang: Beiderbecke, ct; Bill Rank, tb; Don Murray, cl; Adrian Rollini, bs-sax; Frank Signorelli, pn; Chauncey Morehouse, dm. (October 25, 1927)
  1. Goose Pimples (Trent-Henderson)/same as above.
  1. Clarinet Marmalade (Larry Shields-Henry Ragas)/Fletcher Henderson & his Orchestra: Tommy Ladnier, tpt; Joe Smith, ct; Benny Morton, tb; Buster Bailey, cl/s-sax/a-sax; Don Redman, cl/a-sax/arr; Coleman Hawkins, cl/t-sax/bar-sax; Fletcher Henderson, pn; Charlie Dixon, bj; June Cole, tuba; Kaiser Marshall, dm. (December 8, 1926)
  1. Clarinet Marmalade (Larry Shields-Henry Ragas)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Trumbauer, C-sax; Jimmy Dorsey, cl/a-sax; Bill Rank, tb; Paul Mertz, pn; Quicksell, bj; Morehouse, dm. (February 4, 1927)
  1. Sorry (Raymond Klages-Howdy Quicksell)/Fletcher Henderson & his Orchestra: Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, tpt; Joe Smith, ct; Bailey, cl/s-sax;a-sax; Jerome Pasquall, cl/a-sax; Hawkins, cl/t-sax/bar-sax; Frank Skinner, arr; Andy Razaf, voc; Henderson, pn; Dixon, bj; Cole, tuba; Marshall, dm. (November 26, 1927)
  1. Sorry (Raymond Klages-Howdy Quicksell)/Bix Beiderbecke & his Gang: same as Goose Pimples.
  1. My Pretty Girl (Charles Fulcher)/Jean Goldkette & his Orchestra: same as Merry Oldsmobile, but Danny Polo (cl) repl. Murray; Paul Mertz (pn) repl. Riskin; add Joe Venuti, Ed Sheasby, vln. (February 1, 1927)
  1. My Pretty Girl (Charles Fulcher)/Fletcher Henderson & his Orchestra: Rex Stewart, ct; Russell Smith, Bobby Stark, tpt; Jimmy Harrison, Claude Jones, tb; Benny Carter, cl/a-sax; Harvey Boone, a-sax; Hawkins, cl/t-sax; Henderson, pn; Clarence Holiday, gt; John Kirby, tuba/bs; Walter Johnson, dm. (May 2, 1931)
  1. Clementine (From New Orleans) (Creamer-Warren)/Jean Goldkette & his Orchestra: same as Merry Oldsmobile, but add Joe Venuti (vln). (September 15, 1927)
  1. Three Blind Mice [Rhythmic Theme in Advanced Harmony] (Chauncey Morehouse, arr. Challis)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Trumbauer, C-sax; Don Murray, cl/bar-sax; Rank, tb; Ryker, a-sax; Rollini, bs-sax; Riskin, pn; Lang, gt; Morehouse, dm. (August 25, 1927)
  1. Singin’ the Blues (J. Russel Robinson-Con Conrad)/Frankie Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Miff Mole, tbn; Trumbauer, C-sax; Jimmy Dorsey, cl/a-sax; Paul Mertz, pn; Lang, gt; Morehouse, dm. (February 4, 1927)
  1. I’m Comin’, Virginia (Cook-Heywood, arr. Riskin)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: same personnel as Three Blind Mice (May 13, 1927)
  1. Riverboat Shuffle (Hoagy Carmichael-Dick Voynow, arr. Challis)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, Rank, Trumbauer, Ryker, Murray, Raskin, Lang, Morehouse. (May 9, 1927)
  1. In a Mist (Bix Beiderbecke)/Bix Beiderbecke, pn (September 8, 1927)
  1. Candlelights (Bix Beiderbecke)/Jess Stacy, pn (January 18, 1939)
  1. (What’re You Waitin’ For) Mary (Walter Donaldson, arr. Matty Malneck)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Henry Busse, Charles Margulis, tpt; Bix Beiderbecke, ct; Tommy Dorsey, tb; Wilbur Hall, tb/bj; Frank Trumbauer, C-sax; Jimmy Dorsey, Harold McLean, Chester Hazlett, cl/a-sax; Charles Strickfaden, t-sax; Kurt Dieterle, Mischa Russell, Matty Malneck, Mario Perry, vln; Harry Perrella, pn; Steve Brown, bs; Mike Trafficante, tuba; Mike Pingitore, bj; Hal McDonald, dm; Bing Crosby, voc. (November 25, 1927)
  1. Changes (Walter Donaldson)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: as above, but add Nye Mayhew, bar-sax. (November 23, 1927)
  1. San (Lindsay McPhail-Walter Michaels, arr. Challis)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Charlie Margulis, tpt; Jimmy Dorsey, cl/tpt; Bill Rank, tb; Frank Trumbauer, C-sax; Min Leibrook, bs-sax; Matty Malneck, vln; Bill Challis, pn; Carl Kress, gtr; Hal McDonald, dm. (January 12, 1928)
  1. From Monday On (Harry Barris-Bing Crosby, arr. Malneck)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, Margulis, Jimmy Dorsey, ct; Bill Rank, tb; Hazlett, Strickfaden, Rube Crozier, Roy Maier, reeds; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, vln; Harry Barris, pn; Brown, bs; Trafficante, tuba; Pingitore, bj; McDonald, dm; Rhythm Boys, voc. (February 13, 1928)
  1. Louisiana (Johnson-Schafer-Razaf, arr. Challis)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Henry Busse, Margulis, Eddie Pinder, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Boyce Cullen, Hall, Rank, Jack Fulton, tb; Frank Trumbauer, Hazlett, Irving Friedman, Strickfaden, Crozier, Maier, reeds; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, Perry, John Bouman, Charles Gaylord, vln; Roy Bargy, pn; Lennie Hayton, cel; Pingitore, bj; Trafficante, bs; Leibrook, tuba/bs-sax; McDonald, dm. Composite of takes 1 & 3 (April 23, 1928)
  1. Felix the Cat (Kortlander-Wendling, arr. Satterfield)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Margulis, Pinder, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Boyce Cullen, Rank, Hall, tb; Hazlett, Maier, a-sax; Crozier, t-sax; Trumbauer, C-sax; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, Perry, vln; Roy Bargy, pn; Pingitore, bj; Trafficante, bs; Leibrook, tuba; George Marsh, dm. (May 25, 1928)
  1. Sweet Sue (Harris-Young, arr. Challis)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Margulis, Pinder, Harry Goldfield, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Cullen, Hall, Rank, Fulton, tb; Trumbauer, Hazlett, Friedman, Maier, Strickfaden, reeds; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, Perry, Gaylord, Bouman, vln; Bargy, pn; Lennie Hayton, cel; Pingitore, bj; Trafficante, bs; Leibrook, tuba; Marsh, dm. (September 18, 1928)
  1. Just an Hour of Love (Trent-DeRose-Von Tilzer)/Benny Meroff & his Orchestra: Frank Cush, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Rank, tb; Trumbauer, C-sax; Don Murray, cl/t-sax; Bobby Davis, a-sax; Adrian Rollini, bs-sax; Signorelli, pn; Lang, bj; Joe Venuti, vln; Chauncey Morehouse, dm. (September 30, 1927)
  1. Borneo (Walter Donaldosn, arr. Challis)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beibderbecke, ct; Margulis, tpt; Rank, tb; Irving “Itzy” Friedman, cl/t-sax; Trumbauer, C-sax; Hazlett, a-sax; Malneck, vln; Hayotn, pn; Lang, gtr; Leibrook, bs-sax; McDonald, dm. (April 10, 1928)
  1. You Took Advantage of Me (Rodgers-Hart, arr. Satterfield)/Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra: Busse, Margulis, Pinder, tpt; Beiderbecke, ct; Cullen, Hall, Rank, Fulton, tb; Trumbauer, Hazlett, Friedman, Strickfaden, Crozier, Maier, reeds; Dieterle, Russell, Malneck, Perry, Bouman, Gaylord, vln; Bargy, Hayton, pn; Pingitore, bj; Trafficante, bs; Leibrook, tuba/bs-sax; George Marsh, dm. (April 25, 1928)
  1. Baby Won’t You Please Come Home? (Warfield-Williams, arr. Malneck)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, Andy Secrest, ct; Rank, tb; Trumbauer, C-sax; Friedman, cl/t-sax; Hazlett, a-sax; Malneck, vln; Bargy, pn; “Snoozer” Quinn, gt; Leibrook, bs-sax; Stan King, dm. (April 17, 1929)
  1. Futuristic Rhythm (Jimmy McHugh, arr. Malneck)/Frank Trumbauer & his Orchestra: as above, but Lennie Hayton repl. Barby, pn. (March 8, 1929)
  1. Rockin’ Chair (Hoagy Carmichael)/Hoagy Carmichael & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Bubber Miley, tpt; Tommy Dorsey, tb; Benny Goodman, cl; Arnold Brilhart, a-sax; Bud Freeman, Larry Binyon, t-sax; Irving Brodsky, pn; Venuti, vln; Lang, gtr; Harry Goodman, tuba; Gene Krupa, dm. (May 21, 1930)
  1. Deep Down South (Collins-Green)/Bix Beiderbecke & his Orchestra: Beiderbecke, ct; Ray Lodwig, tpt; Boyce Cullen, tb; Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Pee Wee Russell, cl/a-sax; Bud Freeman, t-sax; Leibrook, bs-sax; Venuti, vln; Lang, gtr; Brodsky, pn; Krupa, dm. (September 8, 1930)
  1. Barnacle Bill the Sailor (Luther-Robison)/same as Rockin’ Chair.
  1. Strut Miss Lizzie (Creamer-Layton)/Irving Mills’ Hotsy-Totsy Gang: Beiderbecke, ct; Lodwig, tpt; Jack Teagarden, tb; Goodman, cl/a-sax; Binyon, t-sax; Venuti, 1 unknown, vln; Leibrook, bs-sax; Signorelli, pn; Lew Green, gt; Krupa, dm. (June 6, 1930)

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Cervini’s Turboprop “Revs” Up the Heat

Turboprop - REV - Cover Art

REV / FARRUGIA: The Libertine. CERVINI: Granada Bus. Rev. B. SMITH: No Rain. RADIOHEAD: The Daily Mail. JOHNSTON: Pennies From Heaven. LOOMIS: Ranthem. CARN: Arc of Instability / Tara Davidson, a-sax/s-sax; Joel Frahm, t-sax; William Carn, tb; Adrean Farrugia, pn; Dan Loomis, bs; Ernesto Cervini, dm / Anzic Records ANZ-0059

This CD, titled Rev, is the second by drummer Ernesto Cervini’s little band Turboprop, which will be released on October 27 of this year. Cervini makes it clear that “although I am the band-leader, Turboprop truly feels like a collective due to the passion, commitment and love everybody brings to each performance.”

Ernesto Cervini

Ernesto Cervini

The opening piece, Adrean Farrugia’s The Libertine, is a case in point. It’s a wonderful post-bop kind of piece, with a loosely-structured tune around which all ensembles and improvs are based, and I was struck by how rich the sound was from the combination of only three horns (alto sax, tenor sax and trombone). Farrugia is, appropriately, the first up in the solo department, feeding single-note lines from the right hand with intermittent chording from the left as Cervini ramps up the excitement behind him on drums. Despite the group feel that he encourages, there is no question that this is the drummer’s band, just as Gene Krupa’s and Buddy Rich’s were theirs. Without his participation and guidance, the band would lack a considerable amount of voltage. Frahm enters next, playing an excitable tenor solo with occasional squeals in the top range, pursuing a vibratoless sound à la Coltrane. An ensemble built around ling-held notes then ensues with Farrugia playing florid fills on the keyboard and Cervini keeping up the energy in the background.

Tara Davidson

Tara Davidson

The drummer’s own piece, Granada Bus, comes next. It is built around a sort of 6/8 beat played by the bass that is overlaid on the straight 4 of the rest of the band. I was struck by the unusual quality of the melodic line which, appropriately, sounds Latin. Davidson’s soprano sax solo is outstanding as she manages to tie her note-choices in to the written melody while still taking liberties that rewrite it. Farrugia is more adventurous, pushing the envelope while maintaining elements of the tune within his solo. There’s a marvelous passage later on where the soprano sax, piano, and bass all move together in unison rhythmic lines while Cervini happily bashes his drums in the background.

William Carn

William Carn

By contrast, Brad Smith’s No Rain is more relaxed and gentle in the opening chorus, though it, too, eventually becomes more excitable. The peculiarly loping rhythm brings out some fine playing from the soloists, particularly William Carn on trombone. His tone quality is exceptional; every note is hit dead-center with a richness of sound not normally heard from many jazz trombonists, even some of the most famous. Tara Davidson then takes off in a particularly wild and adventurous soprano solo.

The title tune, Rev, is a wild jazz fugue composed by Cervini that takes off like a rocket, propelling the band through some exciting changes. Cervini eventually enters the fray, taking over with a powerful drum solo. Sadly, this one is over way too soon!

The Daily Mail is a piece by the British rock band Radiohead. I wish I could say that I know the music and/or the band, but as my readers know, rock is not my thing. Nonetheless, I was impressed by the fact that the sextet kept the volume level low and did not emphasize a heavy rock beat, two things I really appreciate. Dan Loomis’ bass dominates the introduction, followed by Frahm’s tenor supported by Farrugia’s piano. A quick change of key and both the volume and voltage are ramped up a bit, with Carn playing some nice growl trombone behind the two saxists. Each of the three horns pursue their own lines for a chorus, almost simulating the old jazz style polyphony in a modern context.

The old standard Pennies From Heaven is given an almost tongue-in-cheek beat by Loomis’ bass in the intro, with Frahm playing the lead while Davidson and Carn fill in with some chording. This is followed by a particularly ingenious ensemble chorus for the three horns, a group improv written out that I felt was absolutely brilliant. When Frahm returns for his improvisation, mostly at double tempo, the rhythm section loosens up considerably, and I was delighted to hear Cervini tone down his normal enthusiasm and play some nicely swinging drums behind the band. Carn’s trombone solo shows some Jimmy Knepper influence here. Cervini’s hip cymbal work backs up Loomis’ solo, which features a great many triplets in rhythm. Yet another inventive ensemble, this one closer to the original melody, acts as the ride-out.

Loomis contributed Ranthem, which begins quietly despite the busy and complex melody line, which comes and goes surprisingly quickly. Much of the opening section of this track is occupied by piano, bass and drums, followed by another quick ensemble passage and a Carn solo with the time now shifting to a more uptempo, streamlined 4. Farrugia’s solo here is more occupied with rhythmic than harmonic changes, breaking down and rearranging the beats within measures to suit his lights.

We close out with Carn’s own Arc of Instability, a medium-tempo, thoughtful piece that creates a unique mood. The uniquely churning rhythm, set up by bass and drums, acts as an underpinning to the cycle of soloists, who do their best to flesh out this somewhat bare-bones tune. Special mention goes to Frahm’s tenor solo, which turns up the temperature for a while, but everyone has something interesting to say here. A surprisingly exciting ride-out wraps things up.

Rev is an absolutely terrific album. I can’t say enough about it, whether of individual tracks, solos, or the overall vibe of the disc. Just get it!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The UK Jazz Ensemble Burns Its Way on Tour

front

ON THE ROAD / WEINER: When Ya Gotta Go, Ya Gotta Go!* TIZOL-ELLINGTON-MILLS: Caravan.* HOLMAN: Film at Eleven.* Any Dude’ll Do.+ FERRANTE: Goin’ Home.* MICHAEL DAVIS: Trombone Institute of Technology.* ROWLES: The Peacocks (arr. Holman).* HIRSCH: Metroliner.* Catch Me if You Can! + CATINGUB: Blues and the Abscessed Tooth.* FOSTER: Blues in Hoss’ Flat.* GOODWIN: The Phat Pack.+ DAILEY: Stalking the Dread Moray Eel.+ MENZA: Time Check+ / University of Kentucky Jazz Ensemble: *Band 1 (2017): Steve Siegel, Zachary Robinson, Zac Byrd, Will Lovan, Taylor Gustad, tpt; Brad Myers, Denver Pascua, Noah Tolson, tbn; Ryon Bean, Laura Hawboldt, bs-tbn; Ian Cruz, Derek Wilson, Jonathan Barrett, Angie Ortega, Jared Sells, sxs; Coty Taylor, pn; Joel Murtaugh, bs; Nick Bolcholz, dm; Angie Ortega, voc. +Band 2 (2011): Andrew McGrannahan, Ryan Bickett, Eric Millard, Patrick Van Arsdale, Ray Lui, tpt; Josh Dargavell, Chase Fleming, Sam Fields, Austin Brailey, Alexandre Magno S. Ferreira, tbn; Will Stafford, Carla Thomas, Dieter Rice, Jonathon Holmes, Nathan Treadway, Ian Cruz, sxs; Don Steins, pn; Rob Barnes, bs; Brandon Wood, dm. On Stalking the Dreaded Moray Eel, replace Raleigh Dailey, pn; Danny Cecil, bs; Paul Deatherage, dm / Mark Records 52987-MCD

Hot on the heels of reviewing the 1959 Johnny Dankworth big band, I sampled a few other new releases in the Naxos jazz library until my ears got stuck on this disc. I had the privilege of reviewing one of Miles Osland’s previous releases (Mega Mega Saxes) for Fanfare magazine several years ago, some tracks of which made it into my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond. This one leans less on classical structure per se but is one interesting and powerful disc.

The album combines tracks made by two different University of Kentucky jazz bands, one from 2011 that played the Montreux/North Sea Festival and one from this year (2017) that played the Elmhurst Jazz Festival. Both bands really burn with an intensity that just won’t quit. I was a bit sorry to see that both Miles Osland and his talented wife Lisa no longer play saxes with the band but simply direct the proceedings. This is not a criticism of the talent they have weaned here, just that I think so highly of Miles and Lisa that I miss them.

But you won’t miss them for long when listening to this CD, because it really cooks, as jazz cats are wont to say. From the first notes of Andy Weiner’s When Ya Gotta Go, Ya Gotta Go!, you’ll hear a band as tight, as well-packed with excellent soloists and with as much esprit de corps as any in the world today. If you haven’t made the acquaintance of Osland’s extremely talented jazz students, this is your opportunity to do so, and they’ll reward your listening time and time again. None of these young musicians play predictable, formulaic jazz; they all know what they’re doing, they kick it into gear, and they take charge of both the ensemble playing and solo space like consummate pros. My lone caveat was Angie Ortega’s vocal on Caravan. She has a nice style, but her voice is thin and wispy and at times she is below pitch. Nonetheless, it’s a nice arrangement, one that Ellington wrote for Ella Fitzgerald. (Sidelight: I think Duke wrote more different arrangements of Caravan than any other piece in his band’s repertoire. Most people haven’t even heard the original, which was made by a small band from the Ellington orchestra in 1937, and is my all-time favorite, but rather are used to the full-blown version he recorded in 1946, the one he played on the 1962 Afro-Bossa album, or possibly the one he wrote for himself and the Boston Pops orchestra in the late ‘60s.)

The band then tackles a wonderful Bill Holman chart called Film at Eleven. This is a medium-tempo swinger with nice alto sax solos by Ian Cruz. Quoth annotator Rich Hirsch: “Every college big band should be required to play Bill Holman…Melodic themes reappear in different shapes and sizes, keeping things interesting.” Goin’ Home has nothing to do with Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony but is a Yellowjackets tune arranged for big band by Ian Cruz, who recreated the original EWI intro (pronounced EE-wee for those of you who don’t know—I didn’t) while the rest of the band falls into a nice funky groove behind him.

Michael Davis’ Trombone Institute of Technology is a fascinating and challenging (if brief) piece built around a modified rondo, played a cappella. But it’s not all trombones; the trumpets and saxes also peek in a couple of times to add to the festivities. But the real gem of the album, a true masterpiece, is Bill Holman’s arrangement of Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks, which features Jonathan Barrett on bassoon. The whole piece has a haunting, wistful quality about it, made more interesting by the sparse yet unusual scoring. I could have lived without the tape-delay loop used in the overlong cadenza, however. Rick Hirsch’s Metroliner, said to represent “a high-speed train in its heyday,” is a modern descendant of Duke Ellington’s Daybreak Express and Charlie Barnet’s Skyliner, except that its Latin beat makes it sound as if the train is doing a mambo on the tracks. A nice solo trombone (uncredited) comes and goes, and there’s a good tenor solo at the midway point by Barrett, but most of this is an ensemble piece which builds up and releases tension nicely.

This is followed by Matt Catingub’s slightly tongue-in-cheek (or tooth-in-cheek) piece, Blues and the Abscessed Tooth, which swings in a hot and heavy manner, with a simply outstanding sax section and brass that really bites. A plunger-muted trombone solo by Brad Myers adds a nice touch, as does Coty Taylor’s piano, but this is mostly a hard-driving ensemble piece. Sax legend Frank Foster’s Blues in Hoss’ Flat features only one soloist, Denver Pascua, first on plunger-muted trombone and then on open horn, but it’s such a wonderful solo and so dominates the music that it almost becomes the piece.

In the last five tracks we switch to the UK jazz band that played the 2011 Montreux Jazz Festival, a mostly different line-up but still containing Ian Cruz on saxes. Their first piece, Catch Me if You Can!, is a “chase” piece with the other saxes going after the tenor, but also including some wonderful and exciting counterpoint which would not shame a classical composition pupil’s work. Nor would the close-harmony trombones or the overall shape and contour of the piece. There are two separate rhythms going on, a sort of Latin-ish backbeat played against the straightahead swing of the saxes, once they get going. Dieter Rice is the tenor here and Will Stafford the alto soloist, with Rice going somewhat “outside” in his extended and excitable solo. The last minute is a wonder of overlaid cacophony that somehow works and straightens itself out.

The Phat Pack is one of Gordon Goodwin’s pieces. For those who aren’t aware, Goodwin is a Hollywood movie-score guy who loves jazz and so created a group called “The Big Phat Band” that eventually left the recording studios and went public in performances. The UK Jazz Ensemble played a medley of some of his most interesting pieces on the Mega Mega Sax album previously mentioned, including his tongue-in-cheek Hunting Wabbits. Here they stick to just one tune, and it’s a slow groove kind of piece that suits the band perfectly. Rice returns on tenor and Cruz plays baritone. Any Dude’ll Do is another Holman score, this one built around a mere five-note theme with a wonderful canon that turns into a round. Cruz plays the gutsy baritone solo here and Stafford returns on alto.

Stalking the Dread Moray Eel is a fascinating piece by UK’s Professor Raleigh Dailey, who subs in the band on piano here, joined by two other faculty members on bass and drums. We start with the drums playing a sort of marching-band rhythm, followed by low saxes and trombone playing a repeated 4-note lick that substitutes for a melody, in turn followed by another theme by low brass. Here’s one of those wonderful jazz-classical hybrids of which I praised in my book; score this for a classical orchestra, force them to try to swing, and you’d get a similar result—similar but probably not as good, because the UK band really gets into the weirdness of the piece, particularly Cruz on soprano sax. Is there any instrument this guy can’t play? Slithering chromatic ensembles are heard later on in the tune, simulating the eel’s journey through the reed section. We get a bit more slithering through atonal passages near the end.

The CD wraps up with Don Menza’s Time Check, another one of those high-powered swingers which suits the UK jazz band to a T. Cruz is on tenor here and the late Brandon Wood contributes a nice drum solo.

What a pleasure to hear a modern-day big band that plays jazz and ONLY jazz: no fusion, no rock garbage, no touchy-feely “sensitive” jazz (what I call neo-classical BS)! Three cheers for Miles Osland and his double-whammy bands of future all-stars!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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