The Nimmons Tribute, “To the Nth”

Cover Art - The Nimmons Tribute - To The Nth

THE NIMMONS TRIBUTE, Vol. 1 – TO THE Nth / P. NIMMONS: Nufsicisum. Night Crawler. Harbours (from The Atlantic Suite). Swing Softly. Holly. Sands of Time. Liëse. S. NIMMONS: Rista’s Vista / Kevin Turcotte, tpt/fl-hn; William Carn, tb; Tara Davidson, a-sax/s-sax/cl; Mike Murley, t-sax; Perry White, bar-sax/bs-cl; Sean Nimmons, pno/Fender Rhodes; Jon Maharaj, bs; Ethan Ardelli, dm / self-produced CD, no label or number

Jazz clarinetist, educator and composer Phil Nimmons, now 93 years old, is the Canadian equivalent of America’s Jamey Aebersold, a highly revered and near-legendary figure whose combined playing (with all of the Canadian jazz greats) and education skills have made him an icon. (I was lucky enough to see Aebersold play in person three times, and on the last occasion, shortly before I became crippled and could no longer attend jazz concerts, thanked him personally for his decades of service to jazz.) This loving tribute CD was organized by his grandson Sean, who is the pianist and arranger on this recording. All of the pieces played here are Phil’s except for Rista’s Vista, which was written by Sean.

The pieces herein have the sound of 1950s cool jazz—think of Shorty Rogers or even Henry Mancini in his jazz days as a point of reference—but they also possess a strong swing feeling, something that has literally disappeared from most modern jazz. (I know that sounds heretical, but it’s true; as Mike Zirpolo pointed out to me, most modern jazz musicians do NOT really swing; their rhythmic sense is built more around bop and post-bop forms of jazz, which have an altogether different rhythmic feel.) And the band is really, exceptionally good. Saxist Tara Davidson doesn’t let the fairly conventional tune structures keep her from playing outside once in a while, Kevin Turcotte is a Rogers-like trumpeter and flugelhornist, along with tenor saxist Mike Murley and a baritone saxist/bass clarinetist named, believe it or not, Perry White (“and don’t call me chief!”).

Another thing many of these compositions have that most modern jazz doesn’t is a strong lyrical feeling in the melodic lines. Turcotte, Davidson, Murley and White are the principal soloists, but grandson Sean Nimmons is a fine pianist who peeks in for a few bars once in a while. Jon Maharaj is a strong, swinging bassist who keeps things moving, and Ethan Ardelli is a vividly imaginative drummer. Swing Softly is one of those laid-back, relaxed medium tempo pieces that are quite rare in jazz nowadays.

This is certainly a fine album although, since Nimmons père was a clarinetist, I wish they had included one on this tribute.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Karajan’s Oddest Recordings

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SUTERMEISTER: Missa da Requiem.* WALTON: Symphony No. 1. GHEDINI: Viola Concerto.+ HENZE: Antifone# / *Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, sop; Giorgio Tadeo, bs; RAI Rome Chorus; +Bruno Giuranna, vla; RAI Rome Symphony Orch.; #Berlin Philharmonic Orch.; Herbert von Karajan, cond / Urania WS 121.389 (live: December 5 & 22, 1953, #1963)

Italy in the 1950s and early ‘60s was a surprisingly innovative place to play and sing music. This was a decade in which opera houses not only revived highly unusual works from the past, such as Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (with Callas), Spontini’s Fernando Cortez (with Tebaldi), Boito’s Nerone and Cherubini’s Gli Abencerrogi (with Cerquetti), but also saw productions of operas by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Montemezzi that had not been performed in Italy before, or not in decades as well as new works by Pizzetti and others.

Into this environment stepped Herbert von Karajan, a German conductor steeped in tradition. Karajan seldom if ever performed 20th century music that was not tonal and thus acceptable to his broad audience; he was not musically adventurous by nature; yet here are four recordings of 20th century works, three of them quite edgy by his standards and, not too surprisingly, all but one performed with the RAI Rome Symphony. These are all mono radio broadcasts, yet the sound quality is for the most part acceptable. As one would expect, it is the lower strings, the basses and celli, that suffer the most from the sound compression.

The one name in this program foreign to me was that of Heinrich Sutermeister (1910-1995), whose Requiem is not quite atonal but uses a great deal of sliding microtonal passages for both chorus and orchestra. Karajan imparts to this music the same legato style with which he conducted Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Wagner, and while even members of the Wagner family complained about his “too lovely” interpretations of their forebear’s music, this performance contains quite a bit of power and drive when called for. It always surprises me how good the Italian choruses of the 1950s were, not only in comparison to those of earlier decades but especially in comparison to the Metropolitan Opera chorus of the same vintage, which was third-rate. This, by the way, is the same orchestra and chorus that Wilhelm Furtwängler used that year for his famous Ring cycle. This is the world premiere performance.

Sutermeister’s Dies Irae almost sounds like a combination of Verdi and Stravinsky: Verdi’s tempi and drive (also the sudden drop to a softer volume in the middle section) with Stravinskian harmonies. This, by the way, seems to be the only recording of this work currently available; there was a modern recording previously on Wergo, featuring soprano Luba Orgonasova and conducted by Heinz Rögner. Although the CD appears to be unavailable as of this writing, it is available on YouTube for free streaming. Rögner’s conducting is well paced but, compared to Karajan, lacks some punch. There’s a much rawer, earthier, more frightening aspect in this reading that I prefer despite the inferior sound, and Schwarzkopf in particular is excellent.

The sound quality suddenly improves to quite good in the Sanctus, at least in the opening, which again combines Verdian drive with Stravinskian melodic lines, harmonies and angular rhythm. Yet I don’t wish to imply that Sutermeister simply copied other composers, as Alfred Schnittke did; his music is quite original and, here and there, continued to use microtones, something that Stravinsky never really indulged in. It’s quite an interesting piece.

For programming purposes—these recordings are spread over two CDs—Henze’s Antifone is up next. This has far clearer and more transparent sound, and is clearly the most advanced composition style in this collection…the sort of thing that Karajan almost never programmed with his own orchestra. Once again, his penchant for lyricism infused the performance, but in this case I find it a benefit, since it slightly softens Henze’s abrasive harmonic clashes. This approach also gives more “flow” to the music, making it sound a bit less angular. I’ve never been a fan of Henze’s music (to me, it always sounds like effects without reason or cause), but this I can take, at least once in a blue moon, thanks to Karajan’s way with it. But I could just imagine Karajan’s usual audience—reactionary older people who love their Schubert and Brahms—attending this concert and having their blood pressures go through the roof.

William Walton’s first symphony, written in 1934-35 (its premiere was given without the last movement), is not as much of a stretch for Karajan as the other works, and he does such a fine job with it that I’m a bit surprised that he never performed it again. The Italian orchestra absorbs it with ease; compared to the Sutermeister Requiem, this was a piece of cake for them. Personally, I found the first movement bombastic and repetitive, the second movement fascinating, the third is wistful in a sort of British-pastoral manner, and the fourth is. to my ears, again bombastic. An excellent performance of an uneven work and, in this case, the sound quality is excellent.

Ghedini’s Musica da Concerto per Viola& Orchestra was written in 1953, the year of this performance. Since I don’t have liner notes for this CD, I don’t know if this was the world premiere or not, but it’s played with an unusually lovely, rhapsodic quality that suits the score. Typically of this composer, it uses modes from ancient music in a modern manner, and is lyrical despite its unusual harmonies. Ghedini effectively uses held notes by the bowed basses to underscore the solo viola line. The concerto is well developed, original, and interesting. We today clearly need to appreciate more of this fine composer’s music.

A mixed bag, then. I could have lived without the Henze or Walton pieces, but the other two are very interesting and shed new light on Karajan’s ability as a conductor. As for the sound, I know that Urania is highly respected for their restoration work, and have enjoyed many of their previous releases, but this one could have used a little brightening of the treble in many places. Once you remove the bulk of the surface noise, you sometimes need to boost treble to restore some of the missing frequencies up top.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Song’s & Reimer’s Excellent “Tristan”

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WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde / Juyeon Song, sop (Isolde); Roy Cornelius Smith, ten (Tristan); Tamara Gallo, mezzo (Brangäne); John Paul Huckle, bass (King Marke); Brian Davis, bar (Kurwenal); Alexander Kaimbacher, ten (Melot/Young sailor/Shepherd); Siarhei Zubkevich, ten (Steersman); Ostrava Opera Men’s Chorus; Janáček Philharmonic Orch.; Robert Reimer, cond / Navona NV6321

This is an exceedingly rare release for Navona Records, the boutique label which also includes Ravello and Parma Records: a complete opera, and not a one- or two-CD cheapie but one of the longest and most famous works in the standard repertoire. It’s daring for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Tristan und Isolde has a very long history on records—after the 1930 Columbia Tannhäuser, it was the first (near) complete Wagner opera to appear on disc—and thus is facing at least five and perhaps six legendary competitors: the 1935 Covent Garden live performance (somewhat abridged) with Kirsten Flagstad, Lauritz Melchior, Sabina Kalter and Fritz Reiner; the 1950 Bayreuth live performance with Helena Braun, Gunther Treptow, Margerete Klöse, Paul Schöffler and Hans Knappertsbusch, the 1952 studio recording with Flagstad, Ludwig Suthaus, Blanche Thebom, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Wilhelm Furtwängler, the 1968 live performance with Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windgassen and Karl Böhm, the even more famous (but in defective sound) 1974 live performance with Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Walter Berry and Böhm, and last but certainly not least, the 1990 live performance and studio recording (two separate entities, but both excellent and with an almost identical cast) featuring Waltraud Meier, Siegfried Jerusalem, Marjana Lipovšek, Falk Struckmann and Daniel Barenboim. This is some pretty heavy-duty competition to throw your hat in the ring against.

Reimer

Robert Reimer

The conducting is clearly first-rate, tending towards the brisk and exciting side (á la Reiner, Knappertsbusch, Böhm and Barenboim) rather than towards the warmer, more amorphous sound achieved by Furtwängler, but since I like this approach I have no qualms. Our Steersman, Siarhei Zubkevich, has a firm voice and no problems, but our intrepid Isolde, Juyeon Song, has a very bright, almost metallic top range and, in the early part of Act I, a somewhat uneven flutter, but both come under control by Track 5. Tamara Gallo as Brangäne has an uncontrolled wobble early on. But I will say this about Gallo, she gives one of the most interesting and dramatic interpretations of her role I’ve ever heard and she, too, gets the voice under

Gallo

Tamara Gallo

much better control by Track 6. Song is also an interesting interpreter, better in fact that either Flagstad or Nilsson, great as their voices were. Happily, our Tristan, Roy Cornelius Smith, has an absolutely lovely voice—albeit also with a bit of loose vibrato—as well as a superb legato, but although he sings his part clearly and with a little bit of oomph, he doesn’t quite match the interpretive excellence of the two women. Our Kurwenal, Brian Davis, is a real “find,” a singer with not only a dramatic approach to his role but a big, dark, firm and ringing baritone voice. I think he is destined for great things if he can hang onto his voice and not blow it out. One should also not overlook the superb singing of tenor Alexander Kaimbacher as Melot, the young sailor and the Shepherd. This is an absolutely lovely, ear-ravishing voice and another first-rate interpretive talent.

Brian Davis

Brian Davis

The big problem here is the sound. Apparently, the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music in Lusławice, Poland, which was the site of both the live concert performances and this studio recording, has a very open, almost cavernous sound. Although the voices and orchestra can be clearly heard, the voices in particular are not merely swimming in echo but kicking up tidal waves of it. It almost sounds as if the opera were recorded in an empty Grand Central Station, and this did annoy me. But by the time we reach Track 7 in the first act, everyone is in pretty good to excellent voice and the performance is swinging along with tremendous drive and enthusiasm from all concerned.

By the time I hit Act II, two thoughts crossed my mind: one strange and one not-so-strange. The odd thought was that Juyeon Song’s voice sounds like Roberta Peters on steroids. If Peters were a dramatic soprano and not a soubrette-coloratura, this is what she would have sounded like. The not-so-strange thought was that, for once, our Tristan and Isolde both sound young, as they are supposed to be—in their late 20s at the oldest—rather than like very good but mature singers trying vainly to sound young. For all that I love the Nilsson-Vickers performance, neither one sounds like a spring chicken. Song and Smith do.

The one fly in the ointment here is John Paul Huckle as King Marke. He has a wobble you could drive a Mack truck through, and if he is just in the warm-up stage he doesn’t stick around long enough to do so. Yet he, too, interprets the words in a meaningful manner. It should be pointed out, however, that this is his first ever Wagner role, and he may have been overparted.

Smith

Roy Cornelius Smith

In Act III, Smith interprets Tristan’s suffering and death vividly, but alas, here his voice shows a few signs of fatigue, moreso in the soft passages where an uneven “beat” came into play. In louder passages, his voice remained solid, bright, and well-focused. And when Isolde finally enters, Song achieves something that NO other Isolde I’ve ever heard does. She sounds frantic, a little unhinged, on the verge of a nervous breakdown—wholly appropriate to this scene, but as I said, no other Isolde sounds like this. Brava, Juyeon! Well done!

Huckle doesn’t sound any better as Marke when he returns in the last act, but Song actually interprets the words of the “Liebestod,” once again something I’ve rarely heard in the past. Yes, I’m sure that some veteran Wagnerians won’t like her tone—it’s very bright, almost a bit edgy, not warm and burnished like Flagstad or Braun or as big as a factory whistle at five o’clock like Nilsson—but if you can adjust to it, she’s a wonderful singer. Let’s just hope the voice holds up a few years and doesn’t fall apart in four or five as Nina Stemme’s voice did. Ditto Smith, who clearly has the goods. If he can hold onto his voice, he will surely become the successor to Siegfried Jerusalem as the best lyric Wagnerian of his time.

Update, November 19: Since Ms. Song reached out to me on Facebook to explain the many stresses that surrounded this recording, I felt it was only fair to include her comments here. They explain a lot:

“We had an excruciating rehearsal schedule and traveling schedule for this performance…No other Tristan und Isolde casts could have gone through this much of an excruciating rehearsal schedule as we did due to limited orchestra’s availability. We rehearsed every day, plus after the rehearsal, we drove 3 hours to get to Poland from the Czech Republic, immediately went into the recording session. After 2 hours of break, on that same day, we sang in the performance. Knowing this, Orchestra never played Wagner’s music in Public [before], with many of the cast debuting; this performance was a remarkable accomplishment for all involved.”

Considering this, I am of course willing to forgive some of the vocal flaws mentioned above. A voice is not a mechanical instrument; it is subject to stress that can impair its production, and in an opera as demanding as this one, I can certainly understand what happened here. But of course, as a listener unaware of these stresses beforehand, all I could do was to describe as accurately as I could what I heard.

*               *                *                *                *                *

Yes, this performance has flaws. Being a live performance, both the soprano and mezzo take time to warm up; Huckle’s vocal control is unquestionably fourth-rate; and both the tenor and soprano have a few “iffy” moments in the last act. But as a live performance of a major repertoire work that is unquestionably difficult to sing, it is surprisingly good, and in terms of dramatic interpretation is, overall, the best I’ve ever heard, thus I recommend it highly. There is more “frisson” in this Tristan than in most of the others I own, legendary performances though they may be.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Who is Gunther Hasselmann?

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About a week or so ago, I was scouting around YouTube for Mozart Symphony performances by Bruno Walter. While collecting these, I ran across performances of the Symphonies Nos. 1 & 34, which Walter never recorded, credited to Gunther Hasselmann and the German National Symphony Orchestra. They were so excellent in every respect that I tried to find Hasselmann’s set of the complete Mozart Symphonies via a Google search.

I came up empty insofar as physical recordings went, but was astonished to find a cornucopia of Mozart recordings by Hasselmann, available for free streaming, on both Amazon and Spotify. Since Amazon insists on your downloading their app to your device to play the recordings and Spotify doesn’t, I stayed on the latter site and sated myself with his performances of the Mozart Symphonies Nos. 24-41.

They were terrific.

In fact, they were better than terrific. Nearly all of them had just the right balance of drive and elegance. The pacing was primarily straightforward, but with subtle rubato modifications here and there. They also included all written repeats. Although I still find the Walter performances to be a bit more “human”-sounding—I’m not all that fond of historically-informed orchestras in which the strings play with constant straight tone—I’d still have to say that, by and large, the Hasselmann Mozart Symphonies are the best I’ve ever heard. They’re better than the much more famous sets by Karl Böhm, Charles Mackerras and Adam Fischer, whose work sounds (in varying degrees) much fussier than Hasselmann’s. The only real disappointment in the set was the very last symphony, No. 41, where I felt that he took far too slow a pace in the first, third and fourth movements. Otherwise, they were perfection.

So of course I then began to scour the Internet, hoping to find out more about Hasselmann, but all I found were two things. On a Reddit.com discussion on music from 2017, one OwenRedding wrote:

And who is this ‘Gunther Hasselmann’ who is clogging up classical on every vendor I visit? He has risen without trace, and Google only returns results of these recent albums, no history of ‘him’.

To which someone using the handle classicot replied:

Not a clue who Hasselmann is. He’s clogging up Classical in North America, too. They are all on 7 digital, too. It’s telling that the quality classical sites such as Presto in the UK and Arkivmusic in the US have none of them.

All I could find on Hasselmann was that he is supposedly 80 years old, lives in Germany, and is a pianist and author, though no book titles are given.

Following my perusal of the Mozart Symphonies, I then dug into the Piano Concerti. These, too, were excellent performances, but much more mixed in both style and quality. In some of them, Hasselmann is playing a period piano; in others, a modern piano; and in a few performances, he starts on a period instrument for the first movement or two and then switches to a modern one for the last. This clearly indicated to me that these movements, and concerti, were recorded at different times. The orchestra in the early concerti sounds like a HIP orchestra, but as the series moves on this, too changes, and we hear an orchestra of reduced forces but not using straight tone. Curiouser and curiouser!

Baffled, I put out feelers to three professional contacts of mine who have been very kind to me in the past: conductor Theodore Kuchar, who works in Europe; the great German pianist Michael Korstick; and Bis records’ owner and founder, Robert von Bahr. Kuchar passed the links along to some of his professional colleagues, none of whom could identify the actual performers of the symphonies. Korstick was even more blunt, saying that the playing could be anyone. Both he and von Bahr were immediately suspicious, thinking that this was another case of fraud similar to the Joyce Hatto recordings. For those who have forgotten or don’t know, Hatto was a minor British pianist who died, and whose husband then digitally modified recordings by some of the greatest pianists in the world and passed them around as recordings by his late wife. Von Bahr was, along with engineer Andrew Rose of Pristine Classical, one of those who helped to break open the Hatto fraud, and he suspects the same thing of Hasselmann.

Following my perusal of the Mozart piano concerti, I sampled some of the chamber music files. Since I don’t like most of Mozart’s chamber music I can’t pass judgment on the performance quality, but the sound on most of these was very strange: rather claustrophobic and a little muffled, sounding like recordings from the early years of digital sound, the 1980s. So clearly, all of these recordings do not come from the same source and the performances are quite varied. Checking under the heading Theatre Works, the only opera he seems to have uploaded is a performance of the early Mitrodate with a group of singers, some good and some excellent, singing in what sounds to me to be idiomatic Italian (but may not be; I don’t claim to be a linguist). Since this was an opera, I got another friend of mine, Vocal Record Collectors’ Society President Joe Pearce, involved, but he declined to go too far, simple reminding me of the many fraudulent opera recordings that came out over the years, particularly the series issued by Period Records in the 1950s from the pseudonymous “Patagonia Festival.”

But then, while searching YouTube for a Mozart Piano Concerto that was not available on Spotify, I saw the legend: “Provided to YouTube by Horus Music.” Aha! A clue! I looked up Horus Music and found this image on their home page:

Horus Music

Then, on Wikipedia, I discovered further information about them. Horus Music was founded in 2006 to allow “artists, labels and right-holders to send their music to over 200 download, streaming, and interactive platforms including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, VEVO, 7digital, Spotify, Beatport, Deezer, Tidal, as well as offering digital marketing and playlisting opportunities.” They also appear to be quite honest and upright when it comes to protecting performers’ rights, having “spoken openly about the state of the music industry and artists’ rights, and were one of the first distributors to remove their catalogue from Rdio after the streaming service was acquired by Pandora.” In fact, on Queen Elizabeth II’s 91st birthday in 2017, she awarded the company with the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade.

So now we have at least a glimpse into what this is all about. Whoever the actual performers are, all of the recordings are copyrighted under the umbrella name of “Gunther Hasselmann” and disseminated for free streaming all over the Internet. What this means is that, far from making money on these recordings, “Hasselmann” actually had to pay Horus Music to manage all of the uploading and management issues.

Curiouser and curiouser and curiouser!!

Strange as it may seem, I feel there is an historic parallel in the strange story of Kasper Hauser, the 15-year-old youth who appeared out of nowhere on the streets of Nuremberg in 1828. Although there were many, in his lifetime and afterwards, who thought him a liar and a phony, the strange thing about Hauser is that he gained NOTHING by sticking to his story of having been raised in a dark basement room, taught only a little German, and fed only bread and water. He spent some time in jail as a vagabond, and even when he was finally placed with people he didn’t steal anything or further his position except to eventually learn more language skills. His strange encounters in which he was cut on the forehead and, at the age of 21, stabbed deeply in the chest by a stranger in the Ansbach Court Gardens, a wound which he died from three days later, could possibly be seen to be attempts to gain sympathy but, again, did not promote or enrich him. All he got for his efforts were poverty, insults and derision.

In his five and a half years living in the open, no one ever came forth to verify or deny Hauser’s story. Even in an era when news traveled slowly, you’d think that someone would have done so had they had any information; considering his time and place, his story was so strange that it virtually traveled around the world. Here, we have a situation where four years have passed since Hasselmann’s recordings first began appearing online. In the Internet age, four years is an eternity, yet no one who has claimed ownership of them or even anyone who has claimed to be one of the performers. I find that exceedingly odd considering their widespread exposure and the obviously high quality of the symphonic and concerto performances. The piano concerti in particular do a better job than any others I’ve heard of capturing the quality of “chiaroscuro,” of light played against darkness, in the music, and as I’ve said, except for the “Jupiter” these are the best overall performances of the symphonies around.

Here is the link to the Spotify page containing most of Hasselmann’s recordings, including a few outliers of the music of Bach, Schubert and Mendelssohn:

https://open.spotify.com/artist/1k9dSmikIfyap8eIW49qHi/discography

And here is my list of where you can find the symphonies and concerti I listened to, under Orchestral Works:

Vol. 5: Symphonies Nos. 22-25, 27

Vol. 6: Symphonies Nos. 28-30

Vol. 7: Symphony in D, K. 250, “Haffner Serenade”

Vol. 8: Symphonies Nos. 31, 33, 34

Vol. 9: Symphonies Nos. 35 & 36

Vol. 10: Symphonies Nos. 38 & 39

Vol. 11: Symphonies Nos. 40 & 41

Vol. 14: Divertimento in D, K. 131

Vol. 19: A Musical Joke, K. 522; Serenade, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”

Vol. 31: Piano Concerti Nos. 6, 8 & 9

Vol. 32: Piano Concerto No. 10 for 2 Pianos, K. 365

Vol. 33: Piano Concerti Nos. 11-13

Vol. 34: Piano Concerti Nos. 14-19, Concerto 20 1st mvt.

Vol. 35: Rest of Concerto 20; Piano Concerti Nos. 17, 21, 22, 24, 25

Vol. 36: Piano Concerti Nos. 23, 26, 27

As you may note, several of the early concerti are not on Spotify but they are on YouTube. Hasselmann’s partners in the three-piano concerto (No. 7) are listed as Albert Strauss and Gerold Niebuhr. Korstick assures me that there are no known pianists by that name, either.

If any of you reading this have any idea who the performers really are, I’d appreciate your sending an email to artmusiclady (at) outlook.com and letting me know. Perhaps there is someone in Germany, Austria, or even in England (for all I know, “Hasselmann” may even be living in a different country altogether) who has an idea who he really is or, better yet, who these performers really are.

Enjoy!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Stephen Rush on Ornette Coleman

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FREE JAZZ, HARMOLODICS AND ORNETTE COLEMAN / By Stephen Rush / Routledge Books, 2017 (302 pp., $128 hardback, $45.56 paperback, available HERE or on Amazon)

The 1950s saw two revolutionary music theories emerge, not from the world of academia or of classical music but from the jazz world. The first was George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which was explained, broken down and codified by Russell in his own words. It was, and remains, a difficult but workable system of playing jazz by thinking in terms of the Lydian mode rather than in terms of the Western scale. The second was Harmolodics, the word that saxist Ornette Coleman used to describe his own music, which to many Western ears sounded like tonal anarchy. Some jazz musicians, primarily pianist John Lewis and bassist Charles Mingus, praised and embraced it, but the vast majority heard it as too harmonically “free” to be used by most players who were not Ornette Coleman.

In this sometimes concise but more often sprawling book, Stephen Rush, who is a Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, attempts to explain and to some extent codify Harmolodics through Coleman’s music as well as in extensive interview excerpts with him. Some of it makes sense; some of it doesn’t; and some of it is contradictory, in part because Coleman talked in circles yet never seemed to close than circle.

Rush himself brilliantly lays out the problem at the bottom of p. 73, at the end of conversation number XVI out of XXXIV with Coleman:

People have inquired about Ornette’s music, “Show me it. Write some out.” Ornette’s style of musical calligraphy, with its Harmolodic clefs and such, couldn’t possibly help. Copious transcriptions exist, including my own, yet they only contain note heads, names, and time values. The meaning of the music is deeper than that. “All of those titles [that people give you] just give you a title, in order to go around and express your title to what someone else is doing.” Many academics will try to simplify artistic endeavors so that they can understand it, often irrespective of what is really happening in the art itself.

Which is true but doesn’t solve the problem. The early part of this book is highly confusing musically but not just for those with a moderate knowledge of music or those with a little more advanced knowledge like myself. Since Coleman routinely spoke of notes being “the same” regardless of their “names,” this leads us into a rabbit-hole from which there seems to be no way out, and although Rush tries patiently to explain Harmolodics the bottom line is that it is still a confusing system for anyone trained in any facet of “normal” music. I have written at some point about how the harmonic “clashes” we hear in the music of modern-leaning composers such as Gossec, Berlioz and Wagner were actually in formal music of the late 17th century, but by the second decade of the 18th the musical establishment eradicated those clashes. In his brilliant lecture on Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Funeral March for a Dead Parrot, Raymond Lewenthal patiently illustrated how three different threads of melody, each one sounding perfectly consonant when played separately, created a harsh dissonance when played together. But the academic world could not accept even this modest but “annoying” dissonance until it had come to grips with Mahler, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók and Charles Ives, the latter of whom, you might say, lived in his own “Harmolodic” world. Gunther Schuller, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson were the few established classical musicians who were fascinated by Coleman’s music and came to its defense, but even they could not really explain it.

My own experience with Coleman’s music is, I am sure, entirely different from Rush’s and, possibly because of this, engendered an entirely different response from that of academics. I first encountered him playing on a CD titled At the Golden Circle, Stockholm back in the 1980s. Though the recording dated from 1966 and only included him with a trio and not with his classic quartet or larger forces, I was able to follow the thread of his playing pretty easily. I found it attractive to the ear but not conventional; in several tracks, he seemed, in fact, to be playing in a harmonically static environment. And that has always been the paradox of Harmolodics. It’s extremely difficult to explain but somehow easy for the ear to grasp. If you just let go of your preconceived ideas about harmony, and how harmony must “lead” both the melody and improvisation, what yu hear is agreeable and imaginative even when it completely ignores Western music.

In my own words—I am not quoting or even paraphrasing Rush here, just giving you my own take on it—Harmolodics is a way of playing jazz from the top down rather than from the bottom up. In other words, the bass line does not “lead” the upper voices; rather, the upper voices “lead” the bass line. This is one reason why, when I first heard the recordings of the classic Coleman quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden, I was utterly astonished at how well Haden could follow what Ornette was doing because, musically speaking, it was the equivalent of jumping off a cliff without a parachute. In his book, Rush states that Haden sometimes supported and sometimes “subverted” what Coleman was doing on alto sax (or occasionally on tenor, or rarer still on the trumpet or violin), but for the most part I consider his musical acumen to have been entirely remarkable. Coleman worked with several different drummers, and most of them were quite good in their role, but he seldom had a bassist as good as Haden, whose background was in—of all things—country and western music. (Jamaladeen Tecuma is another bassist who worked very well with Coleman.)

On the same page as the above quote, Rush continues with an interesting observation that spills onto the following page:

Too often Jazz critics and fans alike are obsessed with speed and virtuosity. They fail to see the artistic statement inherent in the music. Speed and range are false artistic objectives What if we were to dismiss Miles Davis because he “fracked” notes routinely? Indeed, that was his style. What if we reject Thelonious Monk, because he often used “mistake-sounding” half-step dyads as part of his syntax?

Well, I’ve said the same thing for years, and as it turns out I am among a very small minority of classically-trained listeners who find the styles of both Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk to be musically valid. Perhaps that’s because, again, I came to Monk’s music with fresh ears and no preconceptions, but I for one never thought of his music as containing “wrong notes” as so many others do. In fact, the manner in which Monk played the piano, with splayed fingers, is extremely difficult to do, but he chose that method because it gave him the opportunity to accent certain notes within a bar, or even within a four- or five-note phrase, that sounded “wrong” because it was on the off-beat or sometimes in the middle of a beat. But that doesn’t mean that Tatum is to be rejected because he “played fast.” What Tatum did was miraculous, too, because within his note-filled runs and licks he was able to create wild Baroque (in the correct sense of the word) fantasies which in its time also subverted traditional tonality. Tatum could think, and play, in two or three or four different keys at once, flitting back and forth between them so quickly that although the ear caught the variations they sounded like momentary excursions when in fact he sometimes managed to completely leave the home key without most listeners even realizing it.

The problem with Ornette’s music came when he worked within the framework of a “legitimate” string quartet or symphony orchestra. He knew very well that classically-trained musicians could not, for the most part, improvise because that was not part of their training, but because they didn’t learn music as thoroughly as their jazz counterparts (you can scarcely find a classical musician, even today, who can think in terms of the cycle of fourths which is the basis of even earlier jazz improvisation, let alone upper harmonics, extended chords and modes) they clearly couldn’t follow him when he began his Harmolodic excursions, thus he had to write for these formations in a harsh world of mixed tonality which academically-trained ears could not grasp. If you compare, for instance, Coleman’s commercial recording of his jazz symphony Skies of America on which he is the only jazz soloist (for some reason, the rest of his band was not granted permission to record while he was in London making the record!) to the much fuller live performance on which he and his septet, which consisted of Coleman, two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers, worked over and around the written score as played by the Verona Arena Symphony Orchestra, you end up hearing an entirely different experience. Yet for many classically-trained listeners who will even deign to listen to Coleman, the studio recording is at least something they can grasp. When New York Times music critic John Rockwell reviewed a full performance of Skies of America in New York with Coleman’s working group improvising away, he found it much too chaotic to grasp. And since he couldn’t understand it, he blamed Coleman for making it sound “chaotic” and “formless,” not himself for refusing to just open his ears and listen.

Of course, Coleman’s music sounded “right” when played by a jazz orchestra, as it was by the Jazz At Lincoln Center group on May 18, 2018 as a tribute to Ornette…but alas, Skies of America wasn’t on the program, just excellent arrangements (mostly by Ted Nash) of jazz pieces by Coleman. Nowadays, you could probably make up a string section of the Turtle Island and Atom String Quartets, fill in with brass and wind players who have jazz experience, and really do Skies up pink.

But to return to Rush’s fascinating but sometimes frustrating  book, he himself described Harmolodics best on p. 8 of the book as collective improvisation in which “equal consideration should be given to each player. Early Jazz uses this very premise for improvisation. Harmolodics is also about breaking the stranglehold that harmony had on Jazz by the end of the 1950s.” Rush then clearly lists the various aspects of Harmolodics as follows:

  • purposeful use of range to organize the structure of an improvisation
  • reference to keys within and without the home key of the composition during the improvisation
  • the artful manipulation of phrase length
  • a balance between “inside” and “outside” [playing]
  • a playful use of folksong-like characteristics, to wit, longer note values, antecedent-consequent phrasing, strong references to the “home key” or “home keys”
  • the extrapolation of key centers stated or implied by the head
  • the strategic and balanced play between harmonic and rhythmic tension and simplicity
  • detailed listening and flexibility by the bandmates to create large-scale structures
  • the use of timbre as an expressive tool
  • the use of Pop groove references within a Free Jazz composition
  • clear reference to Blues modality and phrasing.

All of which is true in relation to Coleman’s own work, although I personally reject “the use of Pop groove references.” And in fact, I also reject the use of funk, hip-hop and rock references in jazz—All of which is true in relation to Coleman’s own work, although I personally reject “the use of Pop groove references.” And in fact, I also reject the use of funk, hip-hop and rock references in jazz—all jazz, not just Coleman’s. To re-quote Roy Eldridge, “the jazz beat goes somewhere; the rock beat stays somewhere.”

At least twice in the book, Rush refers to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band as an example of “equal consideration given to each player,” but although I like some of the Oliver records, I find much of their work rhythmically stodgy. The late jazz critic Ralph Berton, who actually heard the Oliver band in person when he was 13 years old and never forgot it (he even got to sit on King Oliver’s knee!), once told me that the band was ten times better in person than they were on records, but that Oliver, a gentlemanly and somewhat subservient Southern black man, was told to “keep it minimal” when he made his records and so he did. I would, rather, point to the marvelous 1944 recording sessions that Willie “Bunk” Johnson made with George Lewis on clarinet and Warren “Baby” Dodds, who was Oliver’s original drummer. Despite that these records were made some 20 years after the last Oliver-Armstrong sessions, Johnson, who worked in the sugar cane fields, rarely heard 1930s jazz even on the radio, and so was still insulated within the style he had grown up with as lead trumpet for the Superior Band in New Orleans. There is a loose, almost wild feeling to the collective improvisation within those Bunk Johnson records that eluded Oliver in the recording studio, and I personally feel that they give a much better impression of what improvised jazz sounded like c. 1910-1916.

A large portion of this book—133 pages, to be exact—is taken up with extended interviews of Coleman by Rush. My head was spinning by the time I got two-thirds of the way through this, because Coleman talked, as he played, in circles. He kept coming back to certain key words (mostly “human,” “life” and “f***ing”) which were sometimes used in one context, sometimes in another. Although there were some glimmers of insight in these interviews, particularly on p. 110 where he said “life is so creative that it doesn’t have to please anything,” but then he’d return to his circular metaphors. After the interviews were over and done with, Rush came to his own conclusion, with no direct input from Coleman, that Harmolodics were inextricably tied into the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and early ‘70s. With all due respect to Prof. Rush, I disagree with him. Harmolodics was about full creative equality for the musicians within his groups and, since he used white as well as black musicians, racial equality as well, but more in a general sense, like Duke Ellington’s lifelong promotion of black culture without politicizing it. Ornette Coleman was more of an “can’t we all just get along?” person than a political animal. He was less political than Dizzy Gillespie, who frequently commented on the ongoing situation and in fact ran for President (mostly as a joke) in 1964, and certainly less political than Charles Mingus, who wrote pieces with titles (and sometimes lyrics) pointedly fighting for Civil Rights. Coleman took no part in any marches and gave no concerts specifically to support the Civil Rights movement, as others did. But yes, he wanted people to see him and other black musicians a people and not just as tokens—which, ironically, was an attitude that flew in the face of the Democratic Party, for which African-Americans and in fact all minorities are exactly that.

One of the best pages in the book is p. 139, where Rush does a superb job of explaining the inner workings of Harmolodics in concrete terms (he also gives specific examples of each feature which I have omitted here):

  • the extrapolation of key centers stated or implied by the head.
  • the play between harmonic and rhythmic tension and simplicity.
  • a balance between “inside” and “outside” playing.
  • the use of careful motivic development—usually derived directly from the head.
  • detailed listening and flexibility by the bandmates to create large-scale structures.
  • flexible phrase lengths.
  • strong but brief tonal references.
  • the use of timbre as an expressive tool.
  • the use of Pop groove references within a Free Jazz context.
  • clear reference to Blues modality and phrasing.
  • careful use of range as a structural tool.

I believe that these features, along with a loose view of tonality—whatever key Ornette or Don Cherry or Charlie Haden was playing in at the moment was the tonality—sum up Harmolodics perfectly. The problem, as I said earlier and reinstate here, came when Ornette worked with classical musicians, as he did in his piece for string quartet Dedicated to Poets and Writers and his piece for symphony orchestra and jazz ensemble Skies of America, where the strings (in particular, even in the symphony) seem to be sawing away tonelessly in their little bitonal world as the jazz goes on around them. One might say that these pieces reflect a culture clash between the world of Established Music, where everything, even atonality, has to have a set purpose, and the world of Harmolodics, which embraces, as I said above, a philosophy of “can’t we all just get along”?

The next section of the book, covering 79 pages, consists of Rush’s musical analysis of ten pieces, with solos. Nine of these pieces are by Coleman while the tenth is by Keith Jarrett who, for all his keyboard facility, is a jazz musician I can’t stomach. These are fairly straightforward; anyone with a fair grounding in music can follow what he says, particularly since he includes numerous scored examples. The final portion of the book, 52 pages, has full transcriptions of all solos. The only one I personally disagree with is Doughnut. Although I own both the 1962 Town Hall performance, the one transcribed here, and the 1966 Golden Circle performance, I strongly prefer the latter, where Ornette stretches out, sounds much more relaxed and swinging, and does much more with his solo.

At the tail end of the book, Prof. Rush lays out his syllabus for a one-semester class on Harmolodics. To be honest, I’d probably fail, in part because my sight reading skills are not at a professional level. Yes, I know how to read music; I learned it when I was in the sixth grade, and I can go through a score, but slowly, picking out each note on the piano one by one. I can hear musical accurately, however, and sit down at a keyboard, pick out the notes by ear, and transcribe it to sheet music. But I never could master the art of fast sight-reading like most professional musicians do, which is why I write about music instead of playing it. (Yes, I was a fairly proficient pianist until I suffered thoracic outlet syndrome in the 1990s and had to stop playing.)

So there you are. Although the book is somewhat pricey, with copies ranging from $43.77 for the paperback edition to a high of $128.44 for the hardcover, you can download it to your Amazon Kindle (if you own one…I don’t) for $10.82 (to rent) or $42.54 (to keep). It is well worth the read for both ordinary Ornette Coleman fans with some musical knowledge (which, I would think, are most of them) and more advanced musicians.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Richard Whiteman is Very Well & Good

fartwork_out

WHITEMAN: Very Well and Good. Not So Early. Waltz for Zeke. It Is What it Is – for John Sumner. Selohssa. Pat and Mike. La Belle Époche. Right Here, Right Now, With You. Dancing With Zeke. TOSOFF: Re-Entry. A. WHITE: Residue. LIBBEY-WAYNE: Mangoes / Mike Murley, Pat LaBarbara, t-sax; Amanda Tosoff, pno; Reg Schwager, gt; Richard Whiteman, bs; Morgan Childs, dm / Cornerstone Records, no number

Richard Whiteman is a Canadian jazz musician who, after playing for years as a pianist, switched to bass in 2004. This CD shows him in a fairly straightahead bop setting with his piano quartet. Tenor saxists Mike Murley and Pat LaBarbara join the group on this disc as special guests, sometimes playing chase choruses in the tradition of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

Tosoff

Amanda Tosoff

It’s a wonderfully tight group, too, and both pianist Amanda Tosoff and guitarist Reg Schwager are fine soloists. Thankfully, Schwager plays jazz guitar and not rock guitar, which I really appreciated after suffering through the guitarist on the previous CD I reviewed. And one cannot discount drummer Morgan Childs, who not only keeps a nice, steady beat but is also a tasteful soloist.

Whiteman’s own compositions are largely the feature here. Although not exceptional, they are all fine pieces, though I could have lived without the drippy waltzes Not So Early and Waltz for Zeke. Nonetheless, it is on Not So Early that we first hear Whiteman as a soloist, and I was struck by his rich, full bass tone, something not to be taken for granted. Re-Entry, a piece by Tosoff, is another good bop swinger featuring the two saxists. They most definitely add interest to the group; I enjoyed both of them although, to be honest, I have no idea which was playing at any given time. One has a rich, warm tone while the other has a leaner, more focused one.

It Is What it Is is a really cute tune with a peppy melody line built around rising and falling chromatics. Whiteman is excellent on this one, as are Schwager and Childs, and both the bassist individually and the band as a whole are quite good on the elusive melody and chords of Selohssa (which, it suddenly occurred to me, is assholes spelled backwards!). The solos here are all quite relaxed but also very inventive.

Residue picks up the tempo again with a nice but fairly ordinary bop line. The two saxists have at it again here, and the rhythm section clicks nicely along. Mangoes, on the other hand, is a sort of jazz cha-cha, played solo by Tosoff in the first chorus, followed by Schwager on guitar. Pat and Mike has a nice walking tempo, and is again played by the duo-saxists. Whiteman also plays a good solo with Tosoff backing him.

La Belle Époche is another waltz, but a peppier one with a more interesting melody and interesting harmonic twists—not to mention several tempo shifts to 4. Right Here, Right Now With You is a bossa nova in the Jobim manner, opening with soft but rhythmic guitar chords and followed by Tosoff on piano with Childs playing woodblocks. The closer, Dancing With Zeke, is more of a swing than a bop piece, somewhat reminiscent of the kind of tunes that George Shearing played so often back in the 1950s.  

A nice album, then, particularly worth hearing for Whiteman, Tosoff and the two saxists.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Ben Rosenblum’s “Kites and Strings”

cover

KITES AND STRINGS / ROSENBLUM: Cedar Place.* Kites and Strings.+ Halfway to Wonderland. Motif from Brahms (Op. 98).* Fight or Flight.* Bright Above Us.+ Laughing on the Inside. BERNSTEIN: Somewhere.* YOUNG: Philadelphia. TRAD. BULGARIAN: Izpoved / Ben Rosenblum Nebula Project: Rosenblum, pno/*acc; Wayne Tucker, tpt; Jasper Dutz, t-sax/bs-cl; Rafael Rosa, gt; Marty Jaffe, bs; Ben Zweig, dm/perc/cond; *Jeremy Corren, pno; +Jake Chapman, vib; *Sam Chess, tb / One Trick Dog Records, no number

When I see an album cover that looks like this and has a title like this, the first thing that comes into my mind is, “Another goopy album of soft Millennial ‘jazz,’” but such is not the case here. Ben Rosenblum’s little band swings nicely, if not with any particular style; they change meter here and there with impunity, and the solos are solid and often interesting, particularly those of trumpeter Wayne Tucker, who plays with a crisp, firm and rich tone, much like the late Fats Navarro (I wonder if Fats was one of his models).

Which is not to say that the other soloists aren’t good. Jasper Dutz is a fine tenor saxist with, again, an old-fashioned kind of tone, rich and fat, a little like Coleman Hawkins in his bebop days, and the rhythm section is really tight, which I love. Ironically, and I say this with all due respect, Rosenblum is by far the least interesting or original soloist on his own record. I mean, he’s OK and doesn’t embarrass himself, but as a jazz accordionist he’s not anywhere near George Shearing or Art van Damme, and as a pianist he’s just a bit better than average. He fits into the band pretty well but is not a standout. I’m thinking that this CD is more a showcase for his composing skills than his playing chops, and that’s fine, but the compositions are also just pretty good. I know this sounds like a backhanded compliment, but what can I say? Even Jake Chapman, who guests on vibes on two tracks, is a more interesting soloist than Rosenblum. The only other band I can compare it to is Billy Eckstine’s, about which I recently wrote a profile. Eckstine was a pretty good valve trombonist and sometimes trumpeter though clearly not on the level of the killer musicians he had playing behind him, but at least he was one thing they were not, and that was a highly prized and very popular singer.

Nonetheless, this is a very enjoyable set. Rosenblum’s piece are at least somewhat interesting and not always conventional—listen to Halfway to Wonderland with its unusual form and melodic line—and they bring out the best in his very talented bandmates. Jasper Dutz does some amazing things on bass clarinet here, bringing it so high into its upper range that it sounds like a traditional Bb clarinet in its purity and roundness of tone. I can’t recall any other bass clarinetist having accomplished this.

Rosenblum also worked out a very clever rewriting of the opening of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony in a slow 6/8 beat that also morphs a little as it goes along. On this track, as well as the two others on which Rosenblum plays accordion, the piano soloist is Jeremy Corren. His playing is like the leader’s, professional if not very original or inspiring. The title tune is also very interesting, using a sort of modified Middle Eastern beat, hovering halfway between a Hora and a belly dance, and Tucker is really outstanding here. (I could have lived without the whiny electric guitar, though.) Rosenblum’s arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere is just OK, though I did like the sudden switch to a nice, walking 4 beat for Tucker’s solo. Philadelphia is by far the drippiest tune on the entire album, but Bright Above Us also comes close.

Laughing on the Inside is a wonderful tune which reminded me of the many clever, upbeat pieces that Shorty Rogers wrote and played in the 1950s, and Tucker again shines, as does Dutz on the bass clarinet. (I again skipped through Rosa’s awful-sounding electric guitar solo.) Izpoved, the last piece on the album, is a slow, drippy-sounding Bulgarian tune, a very poor choice for a closer.

Overall, however, there’s some interesting tunes here and a fair assortment of excellent solos. Well worth checking out.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Forgotten Jazz Orchestras: Billy Eckstine

Eckstine band

In the years between 1939 and 1945, three different but somewhat related styles of music grew out of swing: rhythm and blues, spearheaded by Louis Jordan, the early-1940s Lionel Hampton band with Illinois Jacquet on tenor sax, and gospel-blues shouter Sister Rosetta Tharpe; progressive swing, harmonically and rhythmically more advanced, which came out of Eddie Sauter’s scores for the Benny Goodman orchestra, the early Stan Kenton band, and poor, benighted Boys Raeburn (followed by Woody Herman’s first Herd); and bebop, inspired by Charlie Parker’s solos with the Jay McShann orchestra and Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet solos for Cab Calloway. In addition to this, there were also two unofficial “music labs” in New York City where the more progressive-minded musicians, among them trumpeters Joe Guy and Howard McGhee, pianists Ken Kersey and Thelonious Monk, and guitarist Charlie Christian hung out after hours to jam into the early morning, Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse. Yet although progressive swing was based more on the harmonies of classical music, both bop and R&B had a blues base in common, thus in the early days particularly one heard a mixture of the two in much of the music they made.

Somewhere in the middle of all this was the Count Basie Orchestra and its very modern-sounding tenor sax star, Lester Young. Although Basie only flirted with bebop in the late 1940s, he was very interested in the music because of its uptempo blues base, and encouraged its development. And of course, the hard-driving blues rhythms of the Basie band also had an influence on rhythm ‘n’ blues, so once again there was a sort of circular influence in all of this.

Into this breach stepped one William Clarence Eckstine (1914-1993), a Pittsburgh-born baritone crooner who was also bitten with the jazz bug. It’s not well known that Eckstine played pretty good jazz trumpet and fair valve trombone; what most people remember him for is his rich, smooth singing, which he displayed on a couple of hit records with the Earl Hines big band, Stormy Monday Blues and Jelly, Jelly. To today’s ears, Eckstine’s singing sounds overly sugary except when he sang the blues, but in the 1940s he was very much in the vanguard of pop singing along with Bob Eberle, Tony Martin and Duke Ellington’s male singer of the time, Herb Jeffries.

AmmonsEckstine made a name for himself with Hines, thus in 1944, he decided to start his own orchestra to back himself. It was a risky proposition and difficult to say where he got the seed money for it. Although he had made a good salary with Hines, Eckstine went all out, hiring Dizzy, Bird and trombonist Jerry Valentine first and foremost, then letting them recruit the other musicians. While it’s quite possible that such young unknowns (at the time) as trumpeters Freddy Webster and Leonard Hawkins, trombonist Howard Scott, tenor saxists Budd Johnson, Wardell NavarroGray and Dexter Gordon, bassists Oscar Pettiford and Tommy Potter, pianist-arranger John Malachi and drummer Art Blakey were probably thrilled to be working with a big-name leader, the ranks of the Eckstine band also included, at one point or another, such established names as trumpeters Al Killian and the great Fats Navarro, trombonists Trummy Young and Claude Jones, baritone saxist Leo Parker and singer Lena Horne, and I’m sure their talents did not come cheaply. Luckily for him, he brought young Sarah Vaughan over from the Hines band to work with him, and since she always credited Billy as an important influence on her style she, too, was happy to be part of the band.

As one can see from the names mentioned above, some of whom never actually recorded with him (neither Parker nor Gordon can be heard on any Eckstine band recordings or broadcasts), he clearly had the cream of the young crop of bebop players in his ranks. As mentioned earlier, a lot of them came out of traditional swing bands, even some of the “hot” blues bands, thus their playing was a strange mixture of early bop with rhythm ‘n’ blues, but in 1944 the majority of the music-loving public didn’t have the slightest clue what bebop was. They were soon to find out, but by and large it didn’t please them.

BlakeyAmong the film clips that exist of Eckstine leading his band, there is a torrid arrangement of one of his original tunes (Eckstine could, and did, write several songs for the band), I Love the Rhythm in a Riff. The orchestra sounds terrific, with young Blakey pounding away on drums and Gene “Jug” Ammons taking the tenor sax solo around Eckstine’s scatting. Throughout the performance, the camera occasionally pans a young black couple sitting, holding hands and listening to the band with smiles on their faces. But at the end, the man turns to the woman and says, “I wonder if they can play ballads as well,” to which she answers, “I would think better.” That tells you all you need to know about the tastes of the average music listener at the time.

Eckstine band 2Thus Eckstine realized, early on, that the continued existence of his band would have to rely on hit records, but since he had a big name at the time and sang the ballads that people wanted to hear, that’s what most of their commercial recordings consisted of. For all the hot numbers that they wanted to play, and among the very few they recorded, were Eckstine’s Top 10 hits A Cottage for Sale and Prisoner of Love, both of which were awarded a gold disc by the RIAA. Fortunately, the band accepted the fact that the ballads paid the bills, and in person he let them loose on hotter charts that weren’t recorded, but eventually his luck ran out. By January 1947, Eckstine folded the band and never led another one for the rest of his long life.

You might say, then, that claiming the Eckstine band as a “forgotten” one is a bit of a mixed message. I’m sure that a lot of people remembered the ballad recordings they made, and of course the legend of the orchestra as the first real big bop band continued into the late 1960s, when a series of broadcasts that they made for the Armed Forces Jubilee radio show in early 1945 came to light, but I don’t think you can honestly say that the best music this band produced was “remembered” so much as, like the Boyd Raeburn orchestra, “discovered” rather late in the game.

I Stay in the Mood for YouListening to the  best of their commercial recordings—I Love the Rhythm in a Riff, I Stay in the Mood for You (with an excellent Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo), I Got a Date With the Rhythm Man, It Ain’t Like That No More and Opus X—you already get a mixed message. In addition to the frequent allusions to R&B, the ballad arrangements are not really distinguishable from those of any other commercial big band sporting a male crooner, and some of their pieces sounded like swing. Even though the band’s theme song, Blues ‘n’ Boogie, was written by Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli, the same duo who wrote A Night in Tunisia, it morphs from a hot bebop trumpet lick at the opening (underscored by Blakey’s pounding drums) into a Kansas City-styled R&B tune.

It Ain't Like That No MoreAnd this mixed musical message is also heard on the Jubilee broadcasts, good as they are. Both Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan sing fairly commonplace songs such as ‘Deed I Do, Mean to Me and Don’t Blame Me…in good, tasteful arrangements, but not exceptional ones. Yet when the band really takes off on such numbers as Mr. Chips, Air Mail Special (another tune that bridged both bop and R&B), Love Me or Leave Me and the “live” version of Opus X, you hear something really special, a bop band that is completely together, in tune, and driving. The Eckstine band had none of the intonation and section blend problems that often afflicted Dizzy Gillespie’s much more famous bop band of 1947-49, although Dizzy, who was much more familiar to the general public as a jazzman and had the advantage of an RCA Victor recording contract, also had to finally pack it in because the band just wasn’t making enough money to meet the payroll. Part of the reason why Eckstine was able to afford his band while Gillespie wasn’t was because President Franklin Roosevelt had artificially-induced price controls on everything from food and drink to cars and homes, but after World War II President Truman removed those caps and let the open market fend for itself. The price of everything rose, and in that environment an experimental band like Dizzy’s, no matter how good, simply couldn’t survive.

Yet on both their commercial records and their Jubilee airchecks, the Eckstine band had a tremendous joie-de-vivre, undoubtedly because they realized that their leader really appreciated their efforts, paid them as well as he could, and sold himself via ballads to make sure they were all paid on time. Below are links to two videos of the band as well as the best of their commercial recordings and the early 1945 Jubilee broadcasts:

Video (June 1946) – I Love the Rhythm in a Riff
Taps Miller – Second Balcony Jump

Commercial recordings
I Stay in the Mood For You
I Got a Date With the Rhythm Man
Opus X
It Ain’t Like That No More

Jubilee broadcasts (complete) (February 1945)

Enjoy!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Jeff Ellwood’s “Sounds Around the House”

Jeff Ellwood

THE SOUNDS AROUND THE HOUSE / ELLWOOD: U-R. PASQUA: Agrodolche. Old School Blues. Barcelona. MARGITZA: Provence. WILDER-MERCER: The Sounds Around the House. OATTS: King Henry.* OLES: The Honeymoon. BAGG: For Roger / Jeff Ellwood, t-sax; *Bob Sheppard, t-sax; Alan Pasqua, pno; Darek Oles, bs; Joel LaBarbara, dm / self-produced CD, no number, available at Amazon and iTunes

This is the first release by Los Angeles-based tenor saxist Jeff Ellwood, supported by some of the top studio jazz musicians of that area. I was somewhat misled by the calm, peace-inducing cover art and album title into thinking that this would be yet another CD of soft or ambient jazz, but such is not the case. Ellwood is an imaginative player within the jazz mainstream.

Both his tone and his general form of improvising reminded me a bit of Stan Getz who, although from Long Island, was a major influence on the West Coast school of jazz in the 1950s and beyond. More interestingly, although Ellwood swings, and very well at that, much of his playing has “space” in it, and once in a while he plays “outside” harmonically, something Getz never did, with a hard, raspy tone that takes him (and the listener) outside of their comfort zone. In short, Ellwood is a jazz musician with integrity and his own approach to soloing despite his tonal similarity to Getz.

I was also highly impressed by pianist Alan Pasqua. Here is a musician who also harks back to players of the ‘50s, but good ones like Lennie Tristano. He uses a lot of single-note lines played by the right hand and has an excellent sense of structure in his solos. Everything he plays makes sense musically, is coherent, and advances the piece in question.

But then there is bassist Darek Oles, and he, too, is an explorative soloist with a good sense of structure. He doesn’t have a super-powerful tone, but he doesn’t need to; he impressed you with his clarity and swing, and he clearly listens to what the others are playing before he solos. Joel LaBarbara is also a fine drummer, swinging yet subtle. Put them all together, and they are a quartet to be reckoned with, even if they were just together for this one album. (Someone please tell me that they perform together in person, too…they’re far too good to just exist on one little CD.)

Pasqua’s original Agrodolche is a jazz waltz, possibly a slow 6/8 piece, but although it is played at a soft volume it is not a soporific. The unusual melodic line is set over some very interesting changes—not terribly radical, mind you, but interesting, in part because it is a set of changes that uses half-steps up and down chromatically in unexpected places which makes it a little tricky to improvise over. Needless to say, the composer has most of the solo space on this one, but in Ellwood’s solo the saxist surprisingly has his own take on the tune, gliding over the tricky changes with ease. In his second chorus, Ellwood goes a bit outside, suddenly increasing the volume and playing some very gutsy runs that are nothing like Getz.

Old School Blues, also by Pasqua, is another thing entirely, sounding much like the kind of music that Blue Note put out with regularity in the late 1950s, and the whole band really jumps on this one. This track also features a nifty but brief bass-drum duet. With Provence we actually do get a bit of ambient jazz, but once again the melodic line is quirky and the harmonic base somewhat slithery. The group’s performance of the title tune is very ballad-y. Have I mentioned that I generally don’t like ballads? Fortunately, they pick things up again with a fine 6/8 piece titled King Henry, on which tenor saxist Bob Sheppard joins Ellwood to play the melody and in fact takes the first solo, using a harder tone than the leader, sounding almost Coltrane-like. He’s a fine addition to the group, and I wish he had stuck around for another track or two. Ellwood’s softer contours make a nice contrast to Sheppard, but it’s clear that he listened carefully to what the other saxist played, as his own solo builds on and complements it. No two ways about it, Ellwood is a first-rate talent. Barcelona also starts out as if it were a ballad, but the odd bitonal melody, funky beat and slightly quicker tempo save it from being a soporific—that, and the excellent solos, beginning with Oles on bass before Ellwood comes in.

The Honeymoon is another uptempo jumper in the modern blues mold, and here again Pasqua has a sterling solo. Ellwood plays particularly hard tenor on this one, including some lipped chords…not easy to do! We end on a ballad note with For Roger, but Oles’ excellent bass playing keeps things moving behind Ellwood.

This is a very auspicious debut disc for the saxist. Let’s hope he can keep this quartet together for his next release as well.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Fujii & Tamura Ain’t Playing Together!

Pentas cover

PENTAS / FUJII: Not Together. Wind Chili. Rising. Circle. TAMURA: Pentas. Itsumo Itsumo. Stillness. Renovation / Natsuki Tamura, tpt; Satoko Fujii, pno / Not Two MW999-2

Satoko Fujii is clearly the most adventurous of free jazz pianists. Some of her experiments in sound I find interesting and valid, and some I don’t. This one lies somewhere in between.

The very first track, Not Together, is a perfect example. The idea behind this is that the piano and the trumpet should never play on the same beat at the same time, and by golly, they don’t. Both employ a staccato style to their respective instruments in addition to her normal atonality; it almost sounds as if shards of notes are dropping from each instrument to create a sort of sideways polyphonic web of sound, and Fujii continues this into her solo. It’s an interesting bit of musical anarchy, however, which I found interesting.

Up next is Pentas, which begins with Fujii sprinkling a few notes here and there while Tamura plays somewhat lyrical lines. The pianist then follows his lead with some semi-lyrical playing, and they go back and forth like this through the rest of the track, with both players becoming more and more atonal as the music continues. Interestingly, considering that this piece was composed by Tamura, Fujii is again the only one to take a solo. When Tamura plays, Fujii is still playing behind him. Women’s lib, I suppose!

Wind Chili opens with some lovely pentatonic arpeggios by the pianist, with the trumpeter playing his own somewhat lyrical line against it. Yet the harmonic dissonance remains throughout, and the trumpet eventually moves into fast, wild passages up and down the horn. It ends on an unresolved chord.

In Pentas, Tamura plays the same note over and over using a plunger mute as the pianist wends her way around him. Eventually, Fujii goes a bit berserk, prodding the trumpet into joining her, which he does but apparently not being able to find his way into her sound world. Stillness opens with a strange, low sound—the trumpet playing softly in its lowest range?—followed by piano chords, resolutely in D major as the trumpet plays a short series of four notes, repeated. The pianist then plays her own series of isolated notes. The piano gets deeper and stranger-sounding as the trumpet plays a series of figures in and out of the tonality.

Rising opens with Fujii playing the inside strings of the piano in a slow, mysterious series of notes, followed by Tamura playing distorted quarter-tones on his. Eventually, by the 3:15 mark, some semblance (but only a semblance) of harmonic unity enters the piece. The music becomes busier and busier (mostly in the piano part) around 5:14 before settling back down again, yet wilder and more outside towards the end.

I couldn’t make heads or tails out of Renovation, which opens with Fujii playing unison Ds three octaves apart as Tamura noodles away. The music then becomes faster, busier, and more atonal for a spell before returning to the weird opening.

This series of strange dialogues continues apace, although Circle was more lyrical (and a bit more tonal) than many of the other pieces. Some of this album I liked; some of it just confused me, not because I couldn’t understand what they were doing so much as I couldn’t figure out why they were doing it. Bottom line, musical sense and nonsense operate side by side in this very odd album. Worth hearing for the good tracks, however.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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