The UK Jazz Ensemble Burns Its Way on Tour

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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 burns, 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, and I hope Miles will forgive me for saying this because the liner notes indicate that he really loved it, 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 Osland: “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 suites 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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Johnny Dankworth’s ‘50s Band Cooks in New Reissue

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ENGLAND’S AMBASSADOR OF JAZZ / HAWDON: Tribute to Chauncey. Kool Kate. LINDUP: Slo Twain. New Forest. DANKWORTH: Sunflower. Honey-Dew Melon. International. Specs Yellow. Desperate Dan. DANKWORTH-LINDUP: Dauphine Blues. T. RUSSELL: Joe and Lol / Dickie Hawdon, Derek Abbott, Stan Palmer, Colin Wright, Bob Carson, tpt; Laurie Monk, Tony Russell, Danny Elwood, Garry Brown, tbn; Ron Snyder, tbn/tuba; Johnny Dankworth, a-sax/cl; Danny Moss, t-sax/bs-cl; Alex Leslie, bar-sax/cl/fl; Dave Lee, pn; Eric Dawson, bs; Kenny Clare, dm / Avid Entertainment 191018904326

This is a reissue of a once-famous, classic album by the Johnny Dankworth band, made shortly before they packed up their instruments and headed to the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival where they created a sensation. Many websites give the year of recording as 1958, and one says 1960, but I got this into from http://henrybebop.co.uk/dankwort.htm and the info there is so complete and thorough that I accept the recording dates given there as May 12, 13 & 19, 1959. The album was originally issued in the UK on Columbia 33SX1280 and in America on Roulette R 52040 (an American label run by the Mafia, FYI) in their “Birdland” series. It sold very well in both countries. To the best of my knowledge, this is its first appearance on CD.

Dankworth and saxist Ronnie Scott were the harbingers of progressive swing and bop in England, which during the 1950s and ‘60s was still pretty much in thrall with Dixieland. The really popular bands in the U.K. during those years were those of Chris Barber (still alive as of this writing), Humphrey Lyttleton, Acker Bilk, etc., although Dankworth’s famed jazz septet of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, nicknamed “The Seven,” was also very popular. When he formed his first big band in 1953, The Seven was the central part of the orchestra, a blended section of trumpet, trombone, alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax and tuba. By the time of this album and his Newport gig he had revamped his lineup somewhat. Dickie Hawdon, an outstanding soloist, became the lead trumpeter, much to the dismay of Dankworth fans who felt that he didn’t have a strong enough tone to play lead. Nonetheless, the music herein is truly sensational in every way.

Dankworth backThe music here is molded to some extent on the cool jazz charts that Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers and other Americans had written for the bands of Claude Thornhill, Elliott Lawrence, Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton. The sound is rooted in low saxes and, more often than not, trumpets playing in a lower, more mellow range. And there is no question that the band could swing; just listen to the outstanding performance here of David Lindup’s Slo Twain for an example of what I mean. Muted trumpets split the melody with low saxes and trombones, and the occasional, deft use of counterpoint completes the arrangement in a satisfying way, despite the lack (here) of a great solo turn. Moreover, the various writers for this album—Lindup, Hawdon, Tony Russell and Dankworth himself—maintain a certain integrity of style that is both pleasing and engaging for the mind. Dave Lee’s relaxed, slightly meandering single-note solo in Sunflower, followed in turn by Hawdon and Danny Moss, is a good indication of how well each member of this band was attuned to each other and to the ensemble as a whole. “Relaxed brilliance” is a perfect description of this entire program.

Dankworth himself doesn’t really assert himself until the dramatic, drum-laden introduction to Dauphine Blues, continuing after the brass interjection with a solo quite evidently influenced by Lee Konitz, but with a tone slightly sweeter. This is also a much more aggressive tune than the first three on the album, as is the succeeding Honey-Dew Melon with a great tenor spot by Moss and an even better one by Hawdon. Tony Russell’s Joe and Lol is a more relaxed, laid-back piece in a nice medium tempo, featuring a splendid trombone solo (unfortunately unidentified) and a nice flute solo with strong bass underpinning by Alex Leslie.

Indeed, as the album progresses you begin to understand why this band was so good. Everyone “felt” each other’s playing to the extent that they listened carefully to what player X was doing before they embarked on their own solos, and in turn the soloists were listening to the ensemble and what it was doing. These performances, then, have a kind of completeness about them that a great many jazz big bands. past and present, simply do not achieve…and this despite the fact that Lee’s instrument has a thin, almost klunky sound, as if it were a piano in the back room of a bar (who knows? Maybe it was!). And it’s not a case of “follow the leader,” good as Dankworth was, because Johnny doesn’t dominate the solo space. In Kool Kate he drops in for a chorus or two in the middle, then splits. In other numbers he doesn’t play at all. And the band almost sounds as if were “dancing in place” in their seats.

New Forest has a slightly dark sound to it despite the use of clarinet and muted trumpet playing the simple theme in the beginning. I wonder if this piece was in some way a tribute to Reginald Foresythe, who had died the year before, and whose Deep Forest was such an popular and influential tune back in the 1930s. On Specs Yellow Dankworth is the dominant soloist in the first half, but then turns things over to a trombonist, and the trombone section as a whole shines in the last few choruses, aided by nice blasts from the trumpet section. The finale, Desperate Dan, is a medium-slow number based on Louis Armstrong’s theme song, When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, but so transformed that it sounds like a completely original piece. Danny Moss’ warm, Ben Webster-ish tenor sax is the dominant solo voice here.

In later years, of course, both Dankworth and his orchestra became better known to Americans as accompaniment to his wife, the great jazz singer Cleo Laine, at which time he pretty much gave up playing instrumentals like these, but to his credit he didn’t mind. He felt he had had his turn in the spotlight, and now it was her turn, but in exchange for her powerful voice and stage presence we lost this superb band with its unique sound. This is an album to treasure.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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A Wild Ride With Wild Bill Davison on Commodore

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WILD BILL DAVISON: THE COMMODORE MASTER TAKES / L. POLLACK: That’s A-Plenty. TYERS: Panama. CARMICHAEL: Riverboat Shuffle. ORY-GILBERT: Muskrat Ramble. SHIELDS-LaROCCA-RAGAS-SBARBARO: Clarinet Marmalade. LaROCCA: Original Dixieland One-Step. LaROCCA-SHIELDS-SBARBARO-EDWARDS: At the Jazz Band Ball. C. WILLIAMS-WARFIELD: Baby Won’t You Please Come Home / Wild Bill Davison, tpt; George Brunies, tbn; Pee Wee Russell (first 4 tracks), Edmond Hall (remaining tracks), cl; Gene Schroeder, pn; Eddie Condon, gtr; Bob Casey, bs; George Wetting, dm / YOUNG-WASHINGTON-CROSBY: A Ghost of a Chance. DELANEY: Jazz Me Blues. HYDE-HENRY: Little Girl. WALLER-WILLIAMS: Squeeze Me / Davison, Russell, Condon, Casey; Lou McGarity, tbn; Danny Alvin, dm; George Zack, pn (first 2 sides); Dick Cary, pn (last 2 sides) / HINES: A Monday Date. NEYBURG-DAUGHERTY-REYNOLDS: I’m Confessin’. ARMSTRONG-VENABLE: Big Butter and Egg Man. PIRON: I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate / Davison, Hall, Condon, Schroeder, Casey; Vernon Brown, tbn; Danny Alvin, dm / LaROCCA: Sensation Rag. SNYDER-KALMAR-RUBY: Who’s Sorry Now? JONES-KAHN-LYONS: On the Alamo. B. & J. SPIKES: Someday, Sweetheart / Davison, Condon, Wettling; Joe Marsala, cl; Bill Miles, bar-sax; George Lugg, tbn; Joe Sullivan, pn; Jack Lesberg, bs / PIRON-C. WILLIAMS: High Society. KOEHLER-MOLL-BARRIS: Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams. COOK-HEYWOOD: I’m Comin’, Virginia. RINGLE-MEINKEN: Wabash Blues / Davison, Brunies, Schroeder, Condon, Lesberg; Albert Nicholas, cl; Dave Tough, dm / Commodore CMD-405

Having fully explored Bill Davison’s Danish recordings of the 1970s along with a disc of live material from Condon’s in 1952, I decided to go back in time to investigate his first recordings. Despite having been born in 1906 and playing professionally by age 20, these 1943-45 discs were his first. Many people have puzzled over this, but you have to remember that the field was pretty crowded in the ‘20s, that Davison was sort of a one-off, and his blasting trumpet or cornet tone with its growls, buzzes and lip vibrato was difficult to record. Commodore’s owner, Milt Gabler, was used to arranging jazz musicians for record sessions, however, and thus was somehow able to minimize the microphone damage when Davison cut loose.

Davison LP coverFamous in their day only among “Dixieland” aficionados, the Davison Commodores have since become iconic recordings. It’s not difficult to understand, at least for the first 16 of them. The sheer energy level of these recordings is so powerful that listening to them sounds like a passing freight train barreling down the track at 120 MPH, with no intention of applying the brakes. It would be easy to say that this is just how Davison played all the time, throughout his entire career, which is true, but it wasn’t always that the rest of the band was swept along with such dynamism, and indeed when we switch clarinetists from Pee Wee Russell or Edmond Hall to Joe Marsala or Albert Nicholas, a certain amount of wattage is missing. The same is true once bassist Bob Casey is replaced by Jack Lesberg. It’s not necessarily that Marsala and Lesberg are poor musicians—they were not—so much as that Russell, Hall and Casey were on fire while the others simply played a gig.

In a way, it’s a shame that Davison never got involved with one of the prestigious white swing bands, as his compatriots Max Kaminsky and Bobby Hackett did. Jazz fans have particularly decried Hackett’s involvement with the extraordinarily popular big band of Glenn Miller, but his contributions to the charts he played on were almost always top-notch in quality and at times superb—and not just the big hits like A String of Pearls or Serenade in Blue but also in the band’s arrangements of From One Love to Another and Stardust. Miller adored Hackett’s special art and set him off like the crown jewel that he was. Had Davison signed on with Tommy Dorsey in the early ‘40s, he could easily have become the new Bunny Berigan.

I'm ConfessinIt’s never been entirely clear where Davison stood re: swing music since he was always open-minded to new ideas and in later life played a good number of swing-era tunes. Even in the context of this set, he does not stick strictly to the old tunes from the Teens and Twenties, but adds later songs like I’m Confessin’, A Ghost of a Chance and Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams, none of which would be considered prime Dixieland fodder. But there is no question that the majority of his bandmates preferred small-group jazz (clarinetist Edmond Hall made a famous series of recordings for Blue Note under the title of the Celeste Quartet with Charlie Christian playing acoustic guitar and boogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis on celeste) and, not being part of some swing band’s “small jazz wing” (the Clambake Seven, Gramercy Five, Bob Cats, Kansas City Seven or the various Ellington small bands), they stuck with Chicago-styled Dixieland, which finally experienced a revival around 1942-43. This was also the same era in which San Francisco cornetist Lu Watters came up with his Yerba Buena Jazz Band, playing old ODJB and King Oliver tunes in arrangements fairly close to the originals.

There were several original ‘20s musicians involved in this project: in addition to Davison, Condon and Russell, there was also trombonist George Brunies (he changed his name to Brunis in 1947 on the advice of a numerologist, since “George Brunies” had 13 letters in it) who had been a key member of the legendary New Orleans Rhythm Kings/Friar’s Society Orchestra. Known as the King of the Tailgate Players, Brunies was actually a trombone virtuoso whose playing was far in advance of such “sludge pump” players as Kid Ory or Eddie Edwards, and these recordings show him at his very best. Moreover, if you listen closely, you’ll note that the band eschews the traditional 2/4 “Dixieland” beat in favor of a more streamlined 4/4. This was clearly the influence of advancements in jazz since 1929, including swing.

Perhaps the least interesting soloists in these recordings are the pianists. They play decently but are surprisingly unimaginative, certainly not on the level of Arthur Schutt or Jelly Roll Morton. But then again, the various bands led by Eddie Condon rarely had pianists who played adventurously, and Gene Schroeder was one of Davison’s drinking buddies. Some online critics have unkindly said that Davison was a powerful player but an uninteresting soloist. I disagree. Within the style he played, he was surprisingly original. Not one of his solos proceed the way you “think” they should go. He took chances, veering off the melody and sometimes the harmony, though of course he was never as deep into the chord changes as his friend Hackett. But then again, Louis Armstrong himself was not really a “harmonic” improviser, either.

girard-marsala

Toots Thielemans, Adele Girard & Joe Marsala on 52nd Street, c. 1947

As for the replacement soloists in the later recordings, Joe Marsala deserves special mention. Chicago-born and trained, Marsala played a hybrid style of jazz that combined elements of swing and Dixieland on 52nd Street in New York. He had a beautiful tone and could really swing, but as these recordings show, he was no match for the incendiary brilliance of Russell or Hall, not to mention Goodman or Artie Shaw. His greatest claims to fame were two: he was among the first to integrate jazz in New York, and kept mixed bands through most of his career, and he took a girl harpist under his wing when the band she was playing with skipped town and left her in the lurch. That “girl harpist” was Adele Girard, who later became Mrs. Marsala. Joe taught her how to play jazz and how to improvise, and she quickly became one of the greatest jazz harpists who ever lived. The Marsala Quartet with Girard quickly became the talk of New York; even Armstrong dropped in to hear them and was bowled over by her swing and inventiveness. In later years, Joe became quite ill and incapacitated. Adele took care of him until he died, and made some late recordings on the harp that showed she still had it. He was one of the sweetest and most honest people in the jazz community, everyone admired him, but strictly as a jazz improviser he had too much competition to be remembered for his playing alone.

Albert Nicholas, New Orleans-born, was one of those many “Albert system” clarinetists (Omer Simeon, Jimmie Noone, Barney Bigard and Irving Fazola were others) who made their mark on ‘30s and ‘40s jazz. The Albert system clarinets were differently constructed and used alternate fingering based on the early 19th century 13-key system developed by Iwan Müller. They had a richer, more mellow tone than the standard clarinets. To the best of my knowledge, they were never used by classical musicians in the 20th century because you could play much faster and brighter on standard clarinets, but they are used by clarinetists who play Belarussian, Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish folk music. Nicholas was a pleasant musician but, to my ears, never a great one. I wonder why they couldn’t get Simeon to fill in; perhaps he wasn’t in New York at the time.

Some people have been excited by the fact that Dave Tough is the drummer on the last session, but although it’s true that Tough was also a Chicago-jazz original from the late ‘20s, he had modernized his style considerably by 1945, having played in Tommy Dorsey’s big band and then, at the time of these recordings, exploring a much more modern style in the progressive swing outfit of Woody Herman. If you listen carefully to these recordings, you’ll hear Tough playing a hybrid style of drumming halfway between Dixieland and swing.

All in all, the Davison Commodores were important recordings because, even more so than the Yerba Buena sides, they established Chicago Dixieland as a viable jazz style during the late Swing Era and helped keep it popular in later years when bebop was taking over the modern jazz world. It’s ironic that bop and Dixieland were then seen not only as contrasting but as “warring” styles. Except for the greater harmonic daring and often faster digital dexterity of the boppers, their essentially small-band brand of jazz had much more in common with the Dixielanders than with the heavier, sometimes rhythmically leaden big bands that emerged after World War II. But such was the nature of club life at the time that they were often vying for full-time gigs, and none of the small jazz clubs of the late 1940s had both a bop group and a Dixie group playing in the same venue. Eventually the Dixielanders made their home in two clubs, Eddie Condon’s and Nick’s in Greenwich Village, leaving 52nd Street to be taken over by the boppers and such advanced swing musicians as Art Tatum. For their time and place, the sound quality is surprisingly good. As I mentioned earlier, Gabler was a pro at setting up microphones and managed to capture a certain amount of hall resonance on the original recordings. The Wild Bill Commodores are thus both an important slice of jazz history and extraordinarily vital and exciting recordings in their own right.

Here are links to some of the best recordings as a taste of the set:

That’s A-Plenty
Panama
Riverboat Shuffle
Muskrat Ramble
Clarinet Marmalade
Original Dixieland One-Step
At the Jazz Band Ball
Jazz Me Blues

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Nimrod Borenstein

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BORENSTEIN: Violin Concerto, Op. 60.* The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe. If You Will It, It Is No Dream / *Irmina Trynkos, violinist; Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5209

Nimrod Borenstein (1969 – ) is a violinist-composer who won the Cziffra Foundation award at the age of 15 for his original cadenza to the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 3. He attended the Royal College of Music, first as a violinist, but later won the Leverhulme Fellowship for composition. Neither he nor his work are particularly well known, but pianist-conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy has been championing his works for some time, so here they are on CD at last.

Borenstein, like so many modern composers, is essentially tonal yet one who spices up his scores with counterpoint, surprising chordal shifts and local folk music. There is a strong thread of Jewish folk music running all through his Violin Concerto, despite the biting brass and pounding tympani. The first movement, in particular, is dynamic and driving, using the violin in an integral fashion, much as Berlioz’ Harold in Italy did for the viola. What impressed me the most was that his themes, although tonal, never sound sappy or mundane. Moreover, he knows how to knit them together seamlessly to tell a story, leading the ear from section to section like a master storyteller. His orchestration is colorful, a bit showoffy but never splashy for the sake of cheap effects; rather, he seems to know how to use different sections of the orchestra in a most effective way, never letting one section dominate over the others. At several moments, you’d be hard-pressed to think of his orchestra as containing strings, though when they do return you say to yourself, “Oh yes, he’s got a full string section here.” More often than not, however, he allows the brass and/or winds to dominate, even in the second movement where he has the violas and cellos play pizzicato almost throughout. When the violin section does enter, it is to play a long-note, rhapsodic theme, over which Borenstein overlays more brass.

The third movement has a particularly interesting, long-lined melody, in the course of which Borenstein constantly colors the music with soft percussion (chimes, vibraphone, cymbals) despite its elegiac quality. By such methods, in addition to his keen ear for harmonic resonance and dissonance, Borenstein keeps his music from becoming overly sentimental, something I fully appreciate. At 3:40 into the movement the soloist embarks on a particulary attractive theme, which is then developed using Jewish folk music harmonies. In the fourth and last movement, Borenstein returns to his pounding ways, using edgy, driving rhythms and themes that hold your interest. Here, too, the composer “smears” his harmony in such a way that at times it is tonally ambiguous.

The Big Bang and Creation of the Universe begins quietly, almost pensively, with soft vibes playing before the strings and piccolo enter. A canon is set up in the string section, which becomes quite lively, rhythmic and energetic. This is a big bang with a bit of a swagger! Flutes and clarinets then take up their own canon, backed by chimes, followed in turn by pizzicato strings. Borenstein uses and re-uses the triad of A-C-E as a motif in the first movement as well. A surprisingly lyrical theme then take up in the winds (oboe, clarinets and flutes) against the pizzicato strings. In the second movement, the canons are replaced by a full-blown fugue which goes on for a bit before the texture is reduced to a few cellos playing against the vibes before the upper strings return to play against them. Eventually the counterpoint drifts away, leaving a soft bass drone beneath the vibes soloist with flutes and piccolos up top. The third and last movement is taken at a moderate pace, using many of the same techniques from the first two movements in a lighter and more syncopated manner, sounding almost jazzy as the movement progresses.

If You Will It, It Is No Dream follows in the footsteps of The Big Bang, By now, I came to recognize that although Borenstein has a lot of technical tricks at his disposal, he tends to use them in much the same way in piece after piece. This gives his music a feeling of sameness about it, not necessarily bad but showing that the composer still needs to develop alternate modes of expression. I’ve run across this many times—almost too many times—in the music of many modern composers. They don’t seem to understand how to vary their means of expression. Once they’ve locked themselves into a particular way of writing, they stick with it come heel or high water. What I mean by this is not that their music is bad, ir necessarily repetitive, but too strong a resemblance from piece to piece can be wearing on the listener. (I should also point out that both Mozart and Chopin suffered from this weakness, too, which is why not all of their music is as wonderful as their admirers like to pretend.)

In Borenstein’s case, the repeated tricks are counterpoint and canons, pounding rhythm and syncopated figures with Jewish or Yiddish-style harmonies. No, this third piece doesn’t sound exactly like the preceding work, but it’s a bit too close for comfort. He needs to develop a few different “voices” to make his music sound fresher.

All in all, however, this is a fine introduction to a composer whose music needs to be heard more often. In doing so, he might recognize the repetition and find a means to expand his palette.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Little and Gardner’s Exciting Szymanowski & Karłowicz

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SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. KARŁOWICZ: Violin Concerto, Op. 8 / Tasmin Little, violinist; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Edward Gardner, conductor / Chandos CHSA 5185

Those who have followed my music blog regularly know that I’ve become extremely interested in, and fond of, the music of Karol Szymanowski over the past 10-11 years, and of course this includes his violin concertos. I have both of them played by an excellent fiddler, Ilya Kaler, with the Warsaw Philharmonic directed by Antoni Wit, but what I didn’t have, or had even heard before, was the violin concerto of one Mieczysław Karłowicz, who only lived 32 years (1876-1909). In comparing these new performances to the ones by Kaler and Wit, what struck me was how different the approaches of the conductors were while the approaches of the violinists were not too dissimilar.

Both Kaler and Little have phenomenal control of their instruments and, more importantly, the feeling or “soul” to play this music. The startling difference comes in the quicker, more emotionally direct and outgoing approach of Gardner in the orchestral portion of these scores. It’s like listening to Rodziński conduct the music (see my review of his performance of the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 2 with soloist Henryk Szeryng here), giving it more backbone and less wistfulness. Yes, it works, and I liked it very much, but I also like the greater mysticism of the Kaler-Wit performances. Hearing this recording is like listening to Toscanini conduct the Schubert Second Symphony. Gardner’s approach brings out an exciting, almost overheated feeling in the music, like listening to one of Scriabin’s symphonies, and of course Scriabin was one of Szymanowski’s principal influences. I was also greatly impressed by Gardner’s ability to bring out more clarity of detail in the first concerto than Wit, which made me sit up and take notice. I also liked the broadness and emotional directness of the theme in the midst of the last movement, played with uncommon passion.

The second concerto follows much the same pattern as the first: after an appropriately mysterious opening, Gardner, the orchestra, and soloist Little tear into the music as if their lives depended on it. There’s certainly something to be said for this approach, however, as it brings out the music’s structure with exceptional clarity. Little is especially fine playing the first-movement cadenza, which she approaches as if it were a complete violin fantasia. Gardner slams into the staccato chord introducing the second movement as if it were the hammer blow of fate. As I said, terribly exciting performances! Her spiccato in the last movement skitters with the elegance of a cat, and her timbre in the upper range never thins out or becomes wiry, no matter how high or sustained the tone.

The Karłowicz concerto, according to the liner notes, was written before his major tone poems and symphony and is a more lyrical and genial work. Like Szymanowski, three years his junior, he was passionately devoted to modern classical music and probably also a Strauss fan. Certainly, the concerto says as much. Not quite as innovative as Szymanowski, his concerto is nonetheless a fine piece of music, although it seems to lean on popular-sounding tunes to make its points. Once again Gardner and Little do their utmost to make the music sound exciting and bring out its structure, and in this case I think they succeed handsomely. Certainly, I could well imagine this score making little impression were it taken more slowly or played with less feeling. As the first movement progresses, you begin to appreciate Karłowicz’ aesthetic a little more, with notable and sometimes powerful new themes making their way into one’s ears, but by and large this score put me in mind of Hollywood movie music from the 1930s and ‘40s.

As for the cover of this CD, I absolutely loved Tasmin Little’s perky, friendly smile, so disingenuous and open, but could not figure out why Edward Gardner looked as if someone pushed him into the camera frame at the last second. Geez, Ed, couldn’t you at least have given us a little smile? At least like the Mona Lisa? Would it have killed you? Otherwise, this is a sterling release with an entirely new “take” on the Szymanowski works and a surprising window into the Karłowicz concerto.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Wild Bill Davison’s Excellent Danish Adventure

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WILD BILL DAVISON: THE DANISH SESSIONS, 1973-1978

CD 1: S. EVANS: Driftin’ Down the River. BERRY-DAVIS-RAZAF: Christopher Columbus. WILLIAMS-WARFIELD: Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home? WOOD-GREY-GIBBS: Runnin’ Wild. REDMAN-DENNIKER-DAVIS: Save It, Pretty Mama. CONLEY-ROBINSON: A Cottage for Sale. WINFREE-BOUTELJIE: China Boy. RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South. JOHNSON-MACK: Old-Fashioned Love. JENSEN: Blues for Ann. Farfar’s Blues. LAYTON-TURNER: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans. REYNOLDS-DOUGHERTY: I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You). SWANSTONE- MORGAN: Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me. DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. G. & I. GERSHWIN: Oh Lady Be Good* / Wild Bill Davison, ct/voc w/Papa Bue’s Jazz Band: Arne “Papa” Bue Jensen, tbn; Jorgen Svare, cl; Bent Jædig, t-sax; Jørn Jensen, pno; Lars Blach, gtr; Jens Sølund, bs; Knud Ryskov Madsen, dm; *Ole Stolle, tp / WALLER-KIRKEBY: All That Meat and No Potatoes. AHLERT-YOUNG: I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter. HOWARD-ADAMS-HOUGH: I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now / Davison, ct; A. Jensen, tbn; Svare, cl; J. Jensen, pno; Bjarne “Lille” Pedersen, bj; Jórgen Hallin Olsen, gtr; Sølund, bs; Madsen, dm; Gustav Winckler, voc

CD 2: BERNIE-PINKARD-CASEY: Sweet Georgia Brown. McHUGH-GASKILL: I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me / Davison, ct; Finn Otto Hanse, tpt; Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen, tbn; Elith Nykjær, cl/a-sax; Steen Vig, t-sax/s-sax; Torben Petersen, pno; Preben Lindhardt, bs-gt; Thorkild Møller, dm. / TRAD., arr. Lindgreen: Just a Closer Walk With Thee / Davison, ct; Verner Work Nielsen, tpt; Lindgreen, tbn; Vig, t-sax/s-sax; Hans Kjærby, pno; Claus Nielsen, gtr; Ole Mosgaard, bs; Møller, dm / BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine / Davison, ct; Lindgreen, tb; Jesper Thilo, t-sax; Ralph Sutton, pno; Lars Blach, gtr; Hugo Rasmussen, bs; Svend Erik Nørregaard, dm / CARMICHAEL-GORRELL: Georgia On My Mind / Davison, Vig, Steen, Rasmussen; Torben Munk, gtr; Ove Rex, dm / BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: But Beautiful. ARMSTRONG: Someday You’ll Be Sorry. BLAKE-RAZAF: Memories of You. McHUGH-FIELDS: Exactly Like You / Davison, ct; Thilo, t-sax/cl; Uffe Karskov, t-sax; Flemming Madsen, bar-sax; Pere Carsten Pedersen, a-sax; Steen, pno; Munk, gtr; Rasmussen, bs; Rex, dm / ARLEN-MERCER: Everything Happens to Me. WALLER-RAZAF: Blue Turning Grey Over You / same, but omit a-sax & bar-sax.

CD 3: CONDON: Improvisation for the March of Time. SHAPIRO-CAMPBELL-CONELLY: If I Had You. SMITH-WHEELER-SNYDER: The Sheik of Araby. AUSTIN-McHUGH-MILLS: When My Sugar Walks Down the Street. OLIVER: Dippermouth Blues. WALLER-RAZAF: Keeping Out of Mischief Now. WALLER-RAZAF-BROOKS: Black and Blue. ALTER-DeLANGE: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans? YOUMANS-CAESAR: I Want to Be Happy. HANDY: Memphis Blues. Ole Miss / Davison, ct; Cutty Cutshall, tbn; Edmond Hall, cl; Gene Schroeder, pno; Eddie Condon, gtr; Bob Casey, bs; Buzzy Drootin, dm / JOLSON-DeSYLVA-ROSE: Avalon / Davison, Cutshall, Hall, Casey; Ralph Sutton, pno; Cliff Leeman, dm / WALLER-WILLIAMS; Squeeze Me / Davison, Cutshall, Hall, Sutton, Condon, Casey; Don Lamond, dm.

CD 4: PINKARD-ALEXANDER-MITCHELL: Sugar. WHITING-MORET: She’s Funny That Way. SHAPIRO-CAMPBELL-CONELLY: If I Had You. CARMICHAEL: Rockin’ Chair. CLARK-TURK-MEYER-JOHNSTON: Mandy, Make Up Your Mind. BROWN-HOMER-GREEN: Sentimental Journey / Davison, ct; Per Walther, Ivan Leth, Erik Vedel Peteren, Boris Samsing, Kurt Jensen, Niels Peter Ludbergsen, Willy Jensen, Hans Nielsen, vln; Finn Ziegler, Jørgen Haslev, vla; Niels Erik Clausen, Lueyna Lange, cel; Jørn Jensen, pno; Lars Blach, gtr; Jens Sølund, bs; Hans Nymand, dm. / GORDON-WARREN: Serenade in Blue. G. & I. GERSHWIN: Our Love is Here to Stay. ELLINGTON-GORDON-MILLS: Prelude to a Kiss / same, but add Jesper Thilo, cl; Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen, tbn / ARNHEIM-TOBIAS-LEMARE: Sweet and Lovely. WASHINGTON-YOUNG: A Ghost of a Chance. ELLINGTON-CARRUTHERS-MILLS: Black Butterfly. SWAN: When Your Lover Has Gone / same, but Torben Munk, gtr replaces Blach.

Storyville SVL1088621

Wild Bill in Copenhagen

WILD BILL DAVISON IN COPENHAGEN / SHAPIRO-CAMPBELL-CONOLLY: If I Had You. CONN-KRUEGER-MILLER: Sunday. DUKE-GERSHWIN: I Can’t Get Started. CARMICHAEL-GORRELL: Georgia on My Mind. BURKE-VAN HEUSEN: But Beautiful. Here’s That Rainy Day. DAVISON: B-Flat Blues. ARMSTRONG: Someday You’ll Be Sorry. CLARKE-AKST: Am I Blue? RODGERS-HART: You Took Advantage of Me. WASHINGTON-YOUNG: Ghost of a Chance. REYNOLDS-DOUGHERTY: I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You). ARLEN-MERCER: Everything Happens to Me. BLAKE-RAZAF: Memories of You. WALLER-RAZAF: Blue Turning Grey Over You. McHUGH-FIELDS: Exactly Like You / Wild Bill Davison, tpt/cnt; Torben Munk, gtr; Jesper Thilo, cl/t-sax; Per Carsten, a-sax; Steen Vig, Uffe Karskov, t-sax; Flemming Madsen, bar-sax; Niels Jorgen Steen, pno; Ove Rex, dm / Storyville 1018523 (Recorded in Copenhagen, February 6-13, 1974)

Perhaps no other trumpeter of the “Jazz Age” had quite as long and as interesting a career as Wild Bill Davison. Born in Defiance, Ohio in 1906, he was there in the late 1920s, alongside of Louis, Bix, Muggsy, Jabbo, Max, Bubber Miley, Red Nichols and all those other cats, but whereas they all became famous (some after their untimely deaths), Davison just meandered along, trying to survive in the Depression, until Eddie Condon hired him to join his band at Nick’s in Greenwich Village in late 1943. Suddenly, people stood up and took notice of this highly original and unorthodox trumpeter who blew out of the side of his mouth, blasting distorted and buzzing notes, lip vibrato and growls. And believe it or not, he kept it up into his 80s!

These sessions, made in Denmark when Davison was still a spring chicken of 66-72, show him still very much at the top of his game. The small band of Danish musicians are certainly all fine enough, particularly the saxophone soloists who try their best to follow Wild Bill, but there’s no question that he dominates this session like a colossus.

And it wasn’t just the blasting, buzzes and growls that made him so good. It was also the quality of his improvisations. Even when he used notes economically, as he does on many of these tunes, his note choices were always original and startling. No, he never really updated his style to incorporate bop or modern jazz, but he didn’t have to. Take his solo on I Can’t Get Started  from the In Copenhagen album, for instance. Not even Armstrong would play this tune except once, as a tribute to Bunny Berigan, and he supposedly “played the hell out of it,” but Davison is unfazed. He just tears into it in his own inimitable manner, and by the time Torben Munk enters playing a very nice but also rather polite guitar solo you’re well aware that Davison is dominating this session like a lion making a sudden appearance among a herd of gazelles. He was just that good and that different.

For a graphic example of what I mean about his dominance, just look at this wav file of this tune. Note how Davison’s overblown, powerful trumpet notes stand out like railroad spikes in an otherwise placid (in the middle, when he wasn’t playing) sound wave. You just have to take my word that nearly every track on this album looks like this:

Davison I Can't Get Started

But I’m getting ahead of myself, in part because I’m just such a big Davison fan. We start off with Bill in a surprising swing set with the band of trombonist Arne “Papa” Bue Jensen, which has great soloists despite a somewhat staid rhythm section. But Wild Bill could make any band swing, and he does so here, though he is the seventh soloist up in Christopher Columbus, coming after a particularly great clarinet solo by Jorgen Svare, nice barrelhouse piano by Jørn Jensen and the trombone of Papa Bue himself. This performance of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home is much mellower than the tone Davison played in the 1940s on his Commodore recording, but his lip vibrato, growls and rasps are as vital as ever. And if you think that was good, wait ‘til you hear Wild Bill driving the Danes on Runnin’ Wild. They can barely keep up with his energy! The liner notes describe Davison in the 1970s thus:

Davison was a sensitive ruffian who drank like an entire band, could be gruff and violent, tender and touching, generous or stingy. But ever since he had been put under administration by his fifth and last wife, Ann Stewart, the number of female acquaintances had diminished and his consumption of booze had dwindled to a trickle. Nevertheless, when it came to procuring alcohol, WBD had a number of evasive methods.

All the film clips I’ve seen of him interacting and playing with Danish musicians show a charming, funny guy who yes, could come across as brash in Danish society but who was also a really nice, kind, good-humored man…exactly what you’d think of him from listening to his recordings. Just think of him as a white, trumpet-playing Fats Waller. Same personality, different era. The first CD on the multi-disc set also gives us a glimpse of Davison as singer, particularly good on Save It, Pretty Mama but also stylish on A Cottage for Sale. Eddie Condon used to refer to him as “Wild Pitch Davison,” but this was obviously just a joke. No matter how volcanic Davison’s playing got, he was almost never off-pitch. The man had a tuning fork in his head. The best description I can come up with of his playing is barrelhouse trumpet with great ideas and perfect control of all his effects. As trombonist Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen put it,

I’ve played with many of the choice Americans, but I have to say I was always impressed by the punch there was in Wild Bill. No matter whether he was playing for forty people or four hundred, there was an enormous amount of power. If the concert was being recorded, or if there was a PA system, the sound people always thought there was something wrong with the equipment – that’s how strong he played. The fact that later in the evening he drank himself stinking drunk didn’t matter so much… Like all American musicians, he was very direct. And more serious with his music than you’d think, behind that smash-bang-pow façade. He practiced all the time. He said: “I have the kind of chops that, if I don’t practice one day, it’s okay. Two days, problems. Three days, serious shit.”

One New Year’s Eve, trumpeter Keith Smith started behaving badly, so much so that Papa Bue had to fire him and send him home. “Don’t worry, I’ll take the job,” said Bill, who sat in and played as if he had always been with them. He wasn’t a fast reader, though he was score-literate, but he had very quick ears. Even secondary figures in band arrangements didn’t escape him. One of his proudest moments came in a concert he gave with Clark Terry, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Louis Armstrong. During a break, Armstrong took Davison aside and said, “I’m so glad you continue to pursue this music, and you’ve never taken anything from me.” On Oh, Lady Be Good, Davison engages in a chase chorus with a guest trumpeter, Ole Stolle. Stolle is prodded to play at his absolute best, but Davison still tops him.

The session with Ole “Fessor” Lindgreen’s band, and various reductions thereof, really swings. Here is a rhythm section that needs no apologies. Steen Vig’s soprano sax on I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me, taken at a surprisingly blistering tempo, has the same drive and fast vibrato as that of his own idol, Sidney Bechet, which spurs Davison on to a really hot solo. Davison and Vig also engage in a slower but equally hot dialogue, a cappella at the outset, in Just a Closer Walk With Thee before the tempo doubles and the rest of the band falls in. Much of this CD, however—seven tracks, in fact—is duplicated on the single CD, Wild Bill Davison in Copenhagen, reviewed separately. The live 1952 set with Eddie Condon’s band, taken from broadcasts, came a a surprise to me since it has nothing to do with his Danish experience, but of course any Wild Bill is welcome to hear.

A surprise in this set is CD 3, comprised of live broadcasts from Condon’s emporium in New York City in 1952. The band is a hot one, including Edmond Hall in addition to Davison and a really swinging rhythm section. Here is Davison in his element, pushing his fellow “Nicksielanders” through a program of old blues and standards, and a good time is had by all.

The Wild Bill-with-string session was an idea of Storyville Records’ producer Walther Klæbel. With so many outstanding jazz musicians having gone down that road and coming out of it sounding as if they’d been buried by Mantovani, it could have gone badly but somehow didn’t. As Davison put it, “The conductor, Ole Kurt Jensen, is an extremely conscientious young musician himself and we had the best scores with players who work with the Danish Radio Symphony or from the pit of the Royal Theatre. And contrary to the sessions back in New York, where there was always a distance between the strings and the soloist – why, here it became a one-big-happy-family style of things. We all played music!” Well, until he flubbed a note near the end of one number and immediately asked for a re-take. Sorry, they said, time for a break. “Fuck all strings!,” Davison bellowed. But the session came out great, with plenty of heart in it, and for the most part the arrangements are more creative and even swinging at times, a far cry from what many other jazz musicians (like Clifford Brown and Coleman Hawkins) were saddled with in this country. Check out, in particular, the swinging charts on Sugar, Serenade in Blue and Our Love is Here to Stay, but even the ballad A Ghost of a Chance has a nice beat to it, and in all of them Davison is fully relaxed and completely himself, no compromises in his improvisations.

As for the single CD that came out in 2008, Wild Bill Davison in Copenhagen, six tracks are duplicated from the 4-CD set already reviewed. One might ask, “What about I Can’t Get Started?,’ but the version on the boxed set is a different, shorter take, not quite as interesting as the six-minute version presented on the single disc. It’s all good stuff, though, and well worth hearing. Even with state-of-the-art stereo recording, Davison almost continually blasts the microphones with his buzzes and growls. Of the accompanying band, the saxophonists and guitarists are the most interesting soloists besides Wild Bill himself.

Three of the songs on this album, But Beautiful, You Took Advantage of Me and Memories of You, have surprisingly rich background arrangements for the reeds, playing like a section in a big band, which gives you a small idea of how Davison might have sounded in such an environment. Regardless of his accompaniment, however, he remained steadfastly gritty in his approach. Wild Bill was Wild Bill, regardless of surroundings. In the latter’s second chorus of his solo he lets out an upward glissando rip that probably took the roof off the studio. Throughout the session, Davison’s powerful tone and buzzing distortions dominate. And even in well-known songs like Ghost of a Chance and Am I Blue?, his improvisations were so inventive, right from the first note, that you might not even recognize them unless you looked at the titles first.

The boxed set also includes a bonus DVD of Davison playing with the Condon band in the early 1960s, but I couldn’t play it from the downloads I received.  All in all, a splendid tribute to a true original, one of the few “trad-jazz” musicians I really admire and respect. Davison was one of a kind!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Zeller’s “Vogelhändler” Sparkles in New Recording

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ZELLER: Der Vogelhändler / Elena Puszta, soprano (Electress Marie); Dagmar Schellenberger, soprano (Baroness Adelaide); Bernhard Bechtold, tenor (Adam, a bird seller); Rupert Bergmann, bass-baritone (Baron Weps); Maximilian Mayer, tenor (Count Stanislaus); Wolfgang Dosch, tenor (Professor Süffle); Gerhart Ernst, baritone (Professor Würmchen); Martina Fender, soprano (Postmistress Christel); Raimund Stangl, tenor (Mayor Schneck); Mörbisch Festival Orchestra & Chorus; Gerrit Preißnitz, conductor / Oehms Classics OC-461

I’ve never been much of an operetta fan. Can’t stomach Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus or most of the Franz Lehar things except for The Merry Widow, but I’ve always had a soft spot for two gems from the late 19th century, Carl Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent and Carl Zeller’s Der Vogelhändler, for no other reason but that the music is so much fun to listen to. There was an old (early 1960s) EMI recording of Vogelhändler with Renate Holm, Adolf Dallapozza, Anneliese Rothenberger, Walter Berry and Gerhard Unger, conducted by veteran operetta maestro Willi Boskovsky, but I haven’t heard it in years and honestly don’t recall it.

This one most definitely sparkles from first note to last, and in operettas, sparkle is what you want. More importantly, all the lead singers have fine voices, and that, too, is what you want. This is especially crucial in the four major roles, Adam (the bird seller of the title), Christel (his girl friend), Baron Weps, and Electress Marie. As for the plot, it is typically silly fare. The Elector Prince wants to hunt for a wild boar and receive a “ceremonial maiden,” male chauvinist pig that he is, but the Bergermeister can’t provide him with either. A waitress suggests the postmistress Christel as the latter because her boyfriend Adam is too poor to move into the community and marry her. Christel tells Adam that she is planning to petition the court to find him a job in the town so he can afford the wedding. Being a proud Tyrolean male, Adam doesn’t want his bride-to-be to be the one to find him a job, so he offers Baron Weps a beautiful yellow bird as a bribe to help him.

Meanwhile, Electress-Princess Marie arrives in disguise, hoping to catch the Elector in flagrante with the ceremonial maiden by posing as the maiden herself. Christel ends up in the pavilion with Count Stanislaus, thinking him the Elector. Adam arrives to find the Hunt Master and the Burgomeister informing him that Christel is the ceremonial maiden, and is therefore not in the crowd. Marie, hoping to save Adam from embarrassment, offers him the bouquet of roses which she has brought in case her plan to become the ceremonial maiden works out. Adam, thinking of his own Tyrolen behavior code, somehow thinks himself to have been promised to Marie and Christel to have been promised to the Elector. He thus publicly breaks off his engagement to Christel. Somehow all this confusion gets worked out in brilliant, attractive arias and ensembles, all of which are presented here minus the spoken dialogue (which non-Germans couldn’t care less about anyway).

For the most part, Zeller’s music is flat-out amazing, showing everyone just how many good tunes could be written in 3/4 time…the tempo taken for most of the operetta, except for the few (like the finale) written in a fast-paced, bouncy 4. Adam’s aria, “Wie mein Ahnl zwanzig Jahre,” is probably the most famous set-piece in the operetta, having been recorded in days of yore by such famous tenors as Richard Tauber, Marcel Wittrisch and Nicolai Gedda. Naturally, all of these had much better voices per se than the usual tenors cast as Adam, but Bernhard Bechtold is up to the task, not only stylish but able to manage the difficult soft high notes with ease. The one thing I missed, which both Tauber and Wittrisch had in their recordings, was the mechanical bird in the background. I mean, gee whiz, as long as you’re going to spend this much money on a new recording, ya couldn’t afford a mechanical bird to twitter in the background of Adam’s aria? Cheapskates! But as I say, everyone is into their roles, they have good voices, and boy oh boy does conductor Prießnitz whip up the chorus and orchestra. A good time is had by all.

If you enjoy this operetta as much as I do, this is a sure-fire recording.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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