Exploring the Life and Interests of Bill Russell

Russell book 2

BILL RUSSELL AND THE NEW ORLEANS JAZZ REVIVAL / Ed. By Ray Smith & Mike Pointon / Equinox Publishing, 354 pp. ₤50/$70 for hardback or ebook, order HERE

Most jazz aficionados, but particularly fans of New Orleans jazz or “trad jazz” (an umbrella term that also includes Chicago style “Dixieland” or early New York style based on Chicago or New Orleans jazz), know who Bill Russell was. He was the odd little bald guy—bald, in fact, by the time he hit his late 20s—who was a rabid collector of anything and everything that had to do with early jazz, primarily of black artists of the 1910s and ‘20s. He was also the founder of the American Music record label, the guy who collected the money to pay Dr. Leonard Bechet, Sidney’s older dentist brother, to fit out Willie “Bunk” Johnson with a new set of teeth, the man who bought Bunk a trumpet and cornet, got him playing again and recorded him extensively between 1942 and 1944. American Music was, in fact, one of the seminal labels that helped re-awaken interest in the old music along with the Delta, Circle, Jazz Man and early Blue Note, all of which recorded such early jazz pioneers as Kid Rena, Louis “Big Eye” Nelson, Sidney Bechet, Edmond Hall, Jim Robinson, Baby Dodds, etc. In the early 1940s the craze was so pervasive that even RCA Victor and Columbia got into the act, recording sessions with Papa Celestin, Lil Armstrong, “Papa” Mutt Carey and Bunk Johnson himself (Bunk also appeared on Blue Note with Bechet).

But as I began reading this book, which is actually a loving and superbly-edited amalgam of written and oral reminiscences of his life by Russell himself, with interspersed magazine and newspaper articles by both Russell and those who admired him and early jazz, I found myself utterly fascinated and drawn into his story. It turns out that Russell William Wagner, known professionally as William Russell or Bill Russell, was an extraordinarily well-rounded musician and not just another non-musical admirer of the old music. A trained classical violinist, Russell admitted to loving the drums and percussion even better than his fiddle. Starting in the late 1920s and for the next decade, he was also a composer of some very modernistic percussion pieces that were considered quite favorably by such avant-garde pioneers as Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Edgard Varèse and even Arnold Schoenberg, with whom Russell briefly studied around 1940. In fact, this was, for me, the guiding light to my understanding of Russell and his infatuation with early jazz. I was able to locate the one and only recording of his works made for the Mode label in 1993, the year after he died, by a virtuoso percussion ensemble called Essential Music.

These pieces are incredibly complex and interesting and should rightly be the subject of an article in themselves, but I will discuss them here in the context of this book because, as I say, they are the genesis for Russell’s remaining life as a jazz collector and promoter. One of the reasons they are so interesting is that, despite living very close to the bone financially (he lived on bananas as a way of eating cheaply and still being able to pursue his interests), he was able through a $200 grant to go and live in Haiti for several weeks, where he absorbed first-hand the native music of that island, including the secretive voodoo music. In 1931, back in the U.S., he also heard a visiting troupe of genuine African drummers, including those who played the “talking drums,” and even went so far as to study Chinese music, teaching himself to play several of their instruments although he specialized on the “moon guitar.” Russell took part in a concert of Chinese music presented in Washington, D.C. before an audience that included first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Russell’s percussion pieces were, by his own admission, so complex that even the modern-leaning classical percussionists of his day found them daunting to play. They included the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue for percussion, a 17-minute suite based on Haitian music entitled Ogou Badagri, and several suites based on marching and jazz music. Their difficulty lay in the very complex rhythms he invented, which most classical musicians just couldn’t grasp. I strongly urge you to listen to these pieces for yourself, as they will show you how Russell’s musical mind worked. Here is the list of pieces and movements; by clicking on each title, you will be able to stream them for free on YouTube:

Prelude, Chorale & Fugue

Four Dance Movements:
1. Waltz
2. March
3. Tango
4. Foxtrot

Three Cuban Pieces:

  1. Havanera
  2. Rhumba
  3. Tiempo de Son

Trumpet Concerto

Chicago Sketches:

  1. 3525 S. Dearborn
  2. 5507 S. Michigan
  3. 4726 S. State

March Suite:

  1. School March
  2. Wedding March
  3. Military March
  4. Hunger March
  5. Funeral March

Ogou Badgari

Made in America

Not all of the pieces are jazz-related, although the first of the Chicago sketches, “3525 S. Dearborn,” most certainly is, but their extreme rhythmic complexity—as Russell himself put it, focusing on rhythm over harmony—explain why he was so drawn to a fairly “simple” form of piano jazz, boogie woogie, which does not develop its themes in any way except via rhythm. Russell contributed an excellent article (originally uncredited) to an early book on jazz published in the late 1930s.

His music also explains his fascination with the early polyphonic style of jazz, in which musicians were encouraged to improvise not on the chord changes but on the melody and, as Jelly Roll Morton put it, “always keep the melody going.” Morton was, in fact, the first New Orleans jazz musician whose music he got into, buying a copy of his Shoe Shiner’s Drag in the late ‘20s. Incredibly, he became a collector of nearly every jazz musician who played and recorded in the 1910s and ‘20s, from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to the late Morton and King Oliver sessions, without hearing or collecting Louis Armstrong until around 1936!

But poor Russell, like so many such collectors, went overboard in his enthusiasms. He didn’t just collect the seminal records or the important or great recordings; he had to have complete sets of records by those artists he liked, even if this meant buying records of inferior performances. Of course, at the time he did most of his early collecting, 1931-38, it was fairly easy to amass a monstrous collection for, literally, pennies. Once such small-time jazz labels as Paramount, Rialto, Gennett and OKeh went out of business, the huge dealer stocks and even warehouse stocks of these records were practically given away at prices ranging from one to five cents per disc. The panic was on, as the old song said, and in addition to cleaning out dealers and warehouses of their buried treasures, Russell also went door-to-door in Chicago and Harlem, asking residents if they had any old records they wanted to sell. Most did.

I can understand his fanaticism to a point. When I was much younger, in my teens and early 20s, and started getting interested in early jazz, I collected as much Bix Beiderbecke and early Armstrong as I could (Jelly Roll came a little bit later). But I was satisfied to do so on inexpensive LP reissues. I knew full well that the original records, by that time, were already long gone at cheap prices and didn’t have the money, even if I lived on bananas, to afford them. But there was another difference between my collecting and Russell’s. I only went after the best musicians of the early era, and only the best performances by those musicians. I wasn’t interested, and still am not interested, in the musicians who could barely play (Mutt Carey, Kid Ory, etc.) or those who played what to my ears were corny, stiff, ragtime licks (Freddie Keppard etc.). Even some of those really early Morton records left me cold. Nowadays I have nearly-complete collections on CD of the jazz musicians I admire most: Armstrong 1924-1940, with some examples of his later playing that I find really good; Django Reinhardt; Art Tatum; Morton, of course; Bunk Johnson; Earl Hines 1923-1941 and again from 1956-80; Charles Mingus; Clifford Brown; and Toshiko Akiyoshi. I also have a large but by no means complete collection of Fats Waller, and large but not really complete collections of Benny Goodman from 1926 to 1949 and Duke Ellington from 1926-73.

To a certain extent, however, Russell was deeply affected by the stories told him by Morton and other black musicians of how the white-dominated music industry screwed them. This was certainly true, and in fact Morton suffered the most at the hands of his Chicago publishers, the greedy Melrose brothers, but in a sense Russell was the first of many who was embarrassed by this and thus somehow blamed white musicians for appropriating black culture and profiting from it. Never mind the fact that the best of them, like Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Artie Shaw, Gene Krupa and the Eddie Condon gang, publicly credited black musicians for their influence and hired several of them for their bands. To Russell, it was an unfair advantage that had to be rectified somehow, thus in his view such pioneers who were greatly admired by black musicians, such as Goodman and the Mound City Blue Blowers, one of the first “spasm” bands (using only kazoo, comb-and-tissue paper, and guitar) on records, were “white junk.” Yet for some reason, Russell didn’t seem to realize that by buying these records from dealers and warehouses for pennies, the artists he felt so much for, and thought were cheated by the music business, weren’t even receiving one-tenth of a penny in royalties.

Like so many in the late 1930s-early ‘40s, Russell fought an uphill battle to resuscitate the careers of older black musicians, several of whom, like Nelson and Johnson, were previously unrecorded. There are stories told by Russell in the book, which he got from people who heard them, of such unrecorded legends as Buddy Bolden, Tony Jackson and Buddy Petit. By all accounts, Jackson was the greatest early musician who never recorded; he died in 1921, about a year or two before widespread recording of black jazz artists really got underway (although pianist James P. Johnson, who doesn’t get mentioned, started recording in 1918). Since Jackson, like many who worked in New Orleans, moved to Chicago in his last years, I’m still surprised he wasn’t recorded. But of those three, the one who interests me the least is Bolden. All he was known for was playing very loudly in a ragtime style. Of all those who heard him, none recall him playing anything that was really memorable; Louis Armstrong, in fact, told Russell that Bolden’s drummer was much more rhythmically creative and interesting than the trumpeter himself. Yet five full pages of the book are devoted to the hunt for the missing Buddy Bolden cylinders (there were, it seems, at least two of them), which probably didn’t sell well and have been lost to history. And of course, since he was white, only one brief mention is made of another truly outstanding unrecorded legend, New Orleans cornetist Emmet Hardy. Petit, who does interest me, is described by those who heard him as sort of a cross between Bunk Johnson and early Louis, so that’s at least a good clue to his style. (Interestingly, very little is also said about Lee Collins, who did record, particularly his superb electrical recordings as part of the Jones-Collins Astoria Big Eight.)

Although there was a small but loyal market for the New Orleans revival, as well as for the recreation bands like Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band, the music did not sit well with contemporary musicians and critics. It wasn’t that they didn’t recognize the early importance of these musicians in jazz’s creation; the problem was that most of them who were still around—not only Henry “Red” Allen Jr., Edmond Hall and Buster Bailey but also (perhaps especially) Louis Armstrong, had moved on. The principal aesthetic motivation of the old musicians, to improvise on the melody, was out the window. The goal of the more progressive swing players and those who developed bebop was to improvise on the chords, creating your own melodic structures. Armstrong himself was the prime mover in this revolution, and Jelly Roll Morton wasn’t the only one who disliked it. Many older musicians, and young ones like the West Coast Dixielanders, felt it was a wrong turn in jazz, blamed Armstrong for being the innovator, and wanted to turn the clock back. By the end of World War II, the growing coterie of these musical reactionaries were called “Moldy Figs.” There were even battles of music on jazz radio programs, pitting the traditionalists against the boppers, and in most such battles, audiences chose the latter as victors.

None of this deterred Russell in the least. He was on a mission, and that mission was to preserve as much of the old New Orleans style and record as many of the unrecorded artists as he could. He believed that their music was as important to preserve as that of African drummers, Chinese and Haitian music, and the gamelan players of Bali; and, unlike some of his compatriots, he had sound musical reasons for believing this.

Undoubtedly, his greatest achievement in the jazz field, and the one he should be remembered and praised for, was his revival of Bunk Johnson’s career and subsequent recordings, but the reasons why Johnson’s recordings were important and valuable are quite different from those that Russell and his circle of friends thought they were. The Johnson recordings are absolutely vital to any comprehensive jazz history because they revived a very particular style of New Orleans jazz that was under-recorded in the old days, and that was the classic polyphonic style of the early 1910s that, truthfully, exists nowhere else on records, not even in most of Bechet’s recordings, the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band (which only had two Creoles in it, trombonist Honore Dutrey and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr), or the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, though the NORK came closest. This was a style in which improvisation was constantly going on, but in which, as Jelly Roll Morton put it, they “kept the melody going” in one form or another, even if it meant different instruments within the ensemble taking various notes of the melody and sharing it. Happily, many of the Johnson records were 12-inch 78s, which meant that they could keep it up for roughly 4 ½ minutes at a time; a few performances, recorded over two sides of a 12-incher, ran close to nine minutes. No more complete picture of how early jazz operated has ever been preserved on wax (or tape, for that matter). Bunk Johnson’s recordings are a late-period document of what jazz really sounded like in New Orleans before a single jazz band was recorded. They are even more valuable in this respect than the early Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings, because the ODJB was instructed to leave solos out of their performances and recordings once they hit New York. They didn’t make any recordings of their real “original” style until 1936—and those records, too, are immensely valuable for that reason.

But the Johnson band, like many black New Orleans bands, had a looser, “stompier” beat than the tightly-knit, clockwork sound of the ODJB, thus they make an effective contrast. And yes, many of Johnson’s improvisations are remarkably good. In his last series of recordings, issued on Columbia after his death, he even played loose-limbed versions of famous rags from the “Red Back Book” which are far looser and more swinging than the stodgy performances that Gunther Schuller recorded in the 1970s. All of this is of extreme importance to understanding the evolution of jazz. Without the Bunk Johnson recordings, we would have a very imperfect idea of what pre-1920 jazz really sounded like.

The problem with Russell and his friends was that they went to extremes in praising Johnson for things that simply weren’t true. To quote from the book: “I mean, to hear Bunk come in so strong, [with a] stronger tone than almost any trumpet I’ve heard,” and Russell claims he was even more powerful than Louis Armstrong. This is simply untrue, and Russell should know better because he also heard Armstrong. I talked to three people who heard both trumpeters, Jimmy McPartland, Ralph Berton and Max Kaminsky, and they all said that Armstrong was the most powerful trumpeter they’d ever heard. Also, Bunk was playing in the older style, which meant a more circumscribed form of improvisation, making variants on the melody and not on the chord changes, which was Armstrong’s revolution in jazz. You can claim with certainty that Bunk’s records are clearly better examples of the real old New Orleans jazz than any others in that style, but to say that they were more creative than Armstrong or more creative than the most progressive swing and bop trumpeters is just a fantasy, one that cannot be taken seriously. In their one and only joint recorded performance, a one-and-a-half-minute snippet of Basin Street Blues from a January 1945 broadcast, Johnson’s playing is indeed strong, but Armstrong’s is audibly stronger—and this was a single-microphone pickup for radio, so no fooling around with the volume controls was possible.

But the trad jazz revivalist crowd went much further than to claim that Johnson was louder than Armstrong; they laid claim that he and his bandmates were superior to contemporary jazz musicians. Eugene Williams, writing in an advertising leaflet for Jazz Man records, claimed that Bunk’s playing was “so far from ‘dated’ that there is no cornetist today who could not profit from listening to him (p. 137 of the book),” and Russell himself claimed in liner notes for a George Lewis session that “If the world’s jazziest trombonist isn’t JIM ROBINSON that person surely remains undiscovered (p. 145).” Really, now? What about such hot cornet and trumpet players as Roy Eldridge, Pete Candoli, Henry “Red” Allen and Wild Bill Davison, all of whom could play rings around Johnson once he was taken out of his polyphonic environment? Listen to the sides that Johnson recorded with Floyd O’Brien on trombone, or even some of the Yerba Buena Jazz Band sides, where the band plays a tighter style. Bunk’s sense of rhythm betrays him as very dated, nice improvisations notwithstanding, and the same is true of his own band’s recording of Shine (the Louis Armstrong specialty from 1931). Bunk was wonderful in his own pond playing with musicians and tunes in his style, not so wonderful outside that environment. And as for Jim Robinson, I heard him play, in person, in New York City with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on April 6, 1974. He, too, was wonderful in that milieu—in fact, probably the most exciting member of that particular PHJB lineup—but to put him alongside “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Jack Teagarden, Bill Harris or J.J. Johnson? I don’t think so. OK, maybe Harris and Johnson couldn’t play tailgate style, but as soloists they could bury him. In fact, on p. 149 of the book, even Bunk himself questioned Robinson’s abilities and wanted him replaced: “Jim in particular couldn’t pick up some of the little harmonies that Bunk wanted. Jim had confided to Orin Blackstone that he would have walked out earlier in the week if it hadn’t been for the way I treated him.”

Sadly, it was Bunk, and not his promoters, who suffered the most from this hyperbole. The more modern jazz musicians of the 1940s, insulted by the outrageous claims of Johnson’s playing, attacked him mercilessly for playing “clichés” and “corny old licks,” which was not always true, and not crediting him with the many brilliant things he laid on wax. They also never stopped to consider that the licks they thought clichés were original with Bunk…he invented them, way back when. They threw out the baby with the bath water, and by 1945 so hated Bunk Johnson that he was made an example of the worst kind of “moldy fig.”

I sincerely hope that trad jazz fans, reading this review, will understand my position. I am clearly not anti-Bunk Johnson; on the contrary, I consider him extremely important, much more so (at least on records) than Freddie Keppard. You really do hear where Armstrong’s style started when you listen to Bunk, and it’s interesting to note that, when he first emerged, Louis continued to praise Bunk and say that when he first heard him, “you heard real music. I was young, but I could tell the difference.” But as the purple prose on Johnson grew, Armstrong began to distance himself from the old man as well, denying that he had any real influence on him. “No, no, it was always Joe Oliver.” This, too, is sad, because Armstrong’s first statements are probably the truer ones. Also, if you read what other musicians said, Johnson’s style was very similar to that of the unrecorded Buddy Petit, who was considered one of Armstrong’s most potent rivals (along with the younger and more innovative Jabbo Smith) until Petit died in July 1931.

And although I take issue with Russell claiming that Johnson was greater and louder than Armstrong, I completely agree with his assessment of the old style as published in the fall 1942 issue of Jazz Quarterly:

…almost every sin known to European musical culture is committed—lack of precision, out of tuneness, smears, muffs—in other words we have with us once again the well known “sloppy New Orleans ensemble,” but an ensemble whose unpredictable rhythms, vitalizing accents, and independence of parts (even when playing isometrically) are more thrilling than any symphonic group. There has been much talk about New Orleans counterpoint, but the performances of Bunk’s Orchestra, among others, suggests that possibly New Orleans ensemble style is more of a heterophony than a polyphony…

For those unfamiliar with the term, here is the Wikipedia definition of heterophony:

In music, heterophony is a type of texture characterized by the simultaneous variation of a single melodic line. Such a texture can be regarded as a kind of complex monophony in which there is only one basic melody, but realized at the same time by different voices, each of which plays the melody differently, either in a different rhythm or tempo, or with various embellishments and elaborations. ..Heterophony is often a characteristic feature of non-Western traditional musics—for example Ottoman classical music, Arabic classical music, Japanese Gagaku, the gamelan music of Indonesia, the kulintang ensemble of the Philippines and the traditional music of Thailand.

All of which is true about those Bunk Johnson and his Band recordings. But—hold the phone for a moment. In the book, Russell admits a few things that “shocked” him, to wit: Johnson held great disdain for non-readers in his bands. Like Jelly Roll Morton and, in fact, like most Creole jazz musicians and several African-Americans, Bunk was a good sight reader. He also complained about the wrong notes that clarinetist George Lewis played, and felt that except for the great Warren “Baby” Dodds on drums, his band didn’t hold the rhythm properly. He once said the best band he ever played with was the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, in part because they were all musically literate and in part because they held a steady tempo, and his own last band, in 1947, had good readers who played together better…though they did have a loose New Orleans stomp feel. In addition, Russell admits that when the old New Orleans bands played in the clubs, they had two or three strings (violins and/or viola), which Bunk’s band didn’t have, also that he was surprised to learn that the old bands NEVER used a banjo. But he put a banjo in Bunk’s band.

In fact, although he was much gentler in demeanor than John Hammond, it’s clear from this book that Russell meddled in the creative process when it suited him. Bunk hated having a tuba in his band, but that didn’t stop Russell from hiring Jim Little (real name, Sidney Brown) to play both bass and tuba on some of Bunk’s 1945 records. From the book, Russell writes that “after the session Bunk mentioned to me—he wasn’t objecting to Jim Little’s performance, or his musicianship or anything—but he said he thought the tuba made the band too heavy.” Russell didn’t care, because HE liked having the tuba in there: “But Jim Little did do a fine job on that [tune].” Well, I’m glad you thought so, Bill. Bunk was also “talking about hiring a pianist, and said, ‘You know, a piano would set off the band real nice.’…I changed the subject, and he never brought it up again.”

Thus we have to console ourselves with the fact that Bunk’s band was only semi-authentic; but, as the old cliché goes, it was “close enough for jazz.” Happily, Johnson did record with a pianist (Walter Decou) in 1942, although Decou didn’t meet Johnson’s musical standards, and he also made a few really nice airchecks with an outstanding small group including Sidney Bechet, pianist Ray Parker, bassist Pops Foster and drummer George Thompson. There was also a session in July 1944 with Fred Washington on piano, but that band played more in the Chicago-jazz style of succeeding solos and no funky New Orleans polyphony.

Yet if the reader has been following my train of thought so far, you will probably infer, as I did, that Russell was not meddling in the makeup of the bands with the same attitude that John Hammond brought into the process. Hammond always wanted people to notice what he did and praise him. He was the guy who got rid of Emmett Berry in the Count Basie trumpet section because HE didn’t like him; he was the guy who recommended pianist Mel Powell to his brother-in-law, Benny Goodman. Russell, who clearly didn’t have that kind of ego, just wanted the music to sound loose and “sloppy” because that was how his musical mind worked, and that is what drew him to this specific style of New Orleans jazz. Russell didn’t care for the more streamlined, gliding style of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings or their 1930s successors, the Bob Crosby orchestra, because he thought their swing was too “tight” and they didn’t play polyphonically. For the same reason he didn’t like swing, and he clearly had no affinity with the wildly inventive hot solos that the big swing and, later, bebop stars were playing because it was too metrically even for him. If you listen to his percussion compositions, you’ll fully understand his musical aesthetics. Based on African, Caribbean, Balinese and, to a lesser extent, Chinese music, his compositions aimed for that same kind of looseness even within a far more complex and fully-written style.

Ironically, for supporters who were supposedly so concerned about black jazz musicians not getting fair pay, most of the players Jazz Man and American Music recorded weren’t even members of the  union. This is why Alfred Lion worried about issuing the George Lewis New Orleans Stompers and the Sidney Bechet-Bunk Johnson discs on his Blue Note label; he thought the union might find out and shut him down, so he created a subsidiary label, Climax, to issue them on 78 (years later he put them out on Blue Note LPs). Yet so few people paid any attention to these and other New Orleans revival records—jazz critics refused to review them, jazz radio stations wouldn’t play them, and they only sold a few thousand copies, not a quarter-million or more like the big jazz hits of the day—that James C. Petrillo, president of the Musicians’ Union, probably didn’t even know they existed. At one point in the midst of the 1945 sessions Bunk said to Russell, “How are you going to sell all of this stuff? Why are you making all of this stuff (p. 149)?” It got to the point where he walked out on the sessions. Russell just replaced him with trumpeter Kid Shots Madison (it seems like there were at least a dozen New Orleans trumpeters named Kid in those days: Kid Shots, Kid Rena, etc.), which made Robinson much happier, and issued the discs as “Kid Shots’ New Orleans Band.”

Russell lived a relatively nomadic lifestyle, moving from city to city to hear the musicians he loved in person, working what we would now call “flunky” jobs and just scraping by financially. At one point in the late 1950s, he admitted to never making more than $1 an hour. He never owned a car, and was not really a sociable person; in fact, one of his friends, later in the book, describes him as a loner who was very happy not interacting with people. And, like many artistic-minded people—myself included—Russell had absolutely no marketing or business sense, but his lack of savvy, indifference, and business acumen often hurt him much more than it helped. Many collectors wondered why his American Music label supposedly came out of Canton, Missouri. That’s because it was his parents’ house. His long-suffering mother and father not only agreed to manage his record business for him, but, although not specifically mentioned in the text, probably housed his massive, growing collection of old 78s, sheet music, photos, and old newspaper and magazine clippings advertising records and performances by the old New Orleans and blues musicians he admired. When he moved to New Orleans in 1956 and opened his own record store, things actually got worse instead of better. Left to his own devices, Russell crammed the store from floor to ceiling with boxes containing his record and memorabilia collection. Later in the book, one of his few friends described a visit to his shop, where he found a huge stack of unopened mail, some of it postmarked back a year: all mail orders for his records, with live checks inside. He never even bothered to open them and fill the orders.

During his time in his shop, he also took to repairing violins and violas, and would leave them lying around unattended. Worse yet, he normally left the store unattended, the door wide open, nearly all day with no one inside it. He was lucky not to be cleaned out. Had it not been for a stroke of luck, a college professor who saw great cultural value in preserving, archiving and writing about early New Orleans jazz and acquiring a Ford Foundation grant of $75,000 to create such an archive at Tulane University—and put Russell in charge of it—he might never have made goods use of his treasure trove.

And yet, for all these and other reasons, the book makes fascinating reading. It is a cultural history of an era that one man stubbornly tried to keep alive despite the entire tide of the jazz world rushing against him like a cultural tsunami. Although he did a good job of locating and interviewing as many of the old-timers who were still alive, it’s sad that he completely ignored the second most important influence (after Louis Armstrong, of course) on New Orleans music in the 20th century, namely Henry Roeland Byrd, known professionally as Professor Longhair. With his wild and fascinating blend of a New Orleans jazz beat with calypso, Longhair had a major impact on music in the Crescent City, spawning dozens of admirers and acolytes including Allen Toussaint (himself an influential figure), Al Hirt (who recorded Toussaint’s tunes) and Mac Rebennack, professionally known as Dr. John. In the 1970s, Toussaint and Dr. John used their more widespread fame to catapult Byrd to a position of national and even international recognition; sadly, he died too soon, in 1980 at age 62.

The book is chock full of interesting illustrations: record labels, rare correspondence, business cards of the old musicians, newspaper ads, sheet music covers and record labels—lots and lots of record labels. It is, however, a bit sad that all of the latter are reproduced in black and white. I understand that modern-day publishing is an expensive proposition, particularly in the case of an independent publisher like Eq      uinox that undoubtedly couldn’t afford to sprinkle the book with full color photos, but a single glossy page printed on both sides could have given us a clearer image of the rare records that Russell collected. I have included a two-page Adobe PDF document of illustrations here that you can view online or download. I am not trying to show the publisher up, but merely attempting to add to one’s enjoyment as he or she plows through the book. Posthumously, Russell’s immense collection of recordings, sheet music, letters, newspaper clippings and interviews with jazz musicians were sent to the Historic New Orleans Collection. You can read about it HERE. At the bottom of the page is a link you can use to download a full description of the various segments of his oeuvre.

In the last chapter, Smith and Pointon come full circle, returning to Russell’s innovative and remarkable percussion compositions and their revival in the last three years of his life. It is a sad reminder of the decades in which his remarkable musical mind was put on hold and no compositions written because no one wanted to play them. The authors have done a remarkable, I would even say stupendous, job in giving us the full measure of his modest, gentle, gifted and yet stubbornly recalcitrant man. It is, in my view, the finest and most complete biography published in the last decade, and may well set a standard for such biographies in the future.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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John Bailey Plugs Into “Real Time”

In_Real_Time_Cover_v1_current

IN REAL TIME / BAILEY: Rhapsody. My Man Louis! Triplicity. Lovely Planet. Blues for Ella. Stepping Up. Children’s Waltz. NASCIMENTO: Morro Velho.* GIL: Ensaio Geral / John Bailey, tpt/fl-hn; Stacy Dillard, t-sax/s-sax; John Hart, gtr; Cameron Brown, bs; Victor Lewis, dm/cymb; *Janet Axelrod, fl; *Leo Grinhauz, cel / Summit DCD 720

Sometimes, a return to good old-fashioned, basic jazz is a good thing. I’ve heard so many modern-day jazz albums that try to be something other than jazz—mostly soft, mooshy lounge music, other times funky fusion—that listening to a band like this one in tunes that just take off and say something through strong, inventive solos can be a breath of fresh air.

And that is what you get on this album by trumpeter-writer John Bailey. Nothing pretentious. No music that tries to baffle the listener with off-kilter rhythms and confusing, sometimes confused, musical lines. Rhapsody is a good old-fashioned swinger, while My Man Louis! is an old-fashioned sort of Blue Note funky blues tune. After the opening themes, the soloists come in and have their say. They hold your attention by just playing good, solid, musical lines that aren’t trying to out-weird Pharaoh Sanders. It’s music that makes you smile and picks up your spirits. And I must give very high marks to drummer Victor Lewis for knowing just how much to play, providing a solid backdrop (and occasional fancy licks and solos) without overstepping and trying to crush the ensemble.

It makes sense that Bailey was a member of the Buddy Rich Big Band at age 18 (which was 1984…I just missed hearing him, having heard the Rich band twice, once in 1969 and again in 1976), since he has a solid jazz concept. In Triplicity, he also has a few tricks up his sleeve, alternating a solid, swinging 4 with passages in 3. And thank goodness, his guitarist, John Hart, is also a JAZZ musician. He’s not trying to play rock on his instrument. He’s a really exciting player in the Barney Kessel-Charlie Byrd mold, which delighted me no end.

Bailey is the kind of trumpeter who clearly understands the old maxim that “less is more.” He definitely has the chops to play technically dazzling solos if he chose to, but he understands that keeping to basics and occasionally adding a little space to his playing makes more of an impact. And he says something on his instrument; his solos are really meaty and go somewhere. Likewise, saxist Stacy Dillard also makes a fine impact, often picking up on the leader’s last statement for his own opening figures. Yes, he occasionally throws in some double-time licks and a few buzzed notes, but they’re tasteful. He has structure in his playing.

Lovely Planet opens with a really fine bass solo by Cameron Brown that belies the old jungle drum joke. (“Drums must never stop!” “Why not?” “Bass solo!”), leading into a gorgeous, lyrical tune played by the leader with phenomenal breath control and an outstanding tone. The saxophone doubles him in thirds for the second chorus. Blues for Ella is an uptempo romp, opening with Hart’s guitar backed by bass and drums before moving into the quirky, broken theme, nicely constructed in a way that allows for maximum improvisation when the solos arrive.

In Milton Nascimento’s Morro Velho, Bailey is joined only by bass and guitar in addition to his wife, flautist Janet Axelrod, and cellist Leo Grinhauz in an arrangement that is surprisingly tasteful. I use that term because far too many such arrangements nowadays tend to overdo the mush while distancing the music from jazz, but Bailey has a fine ear and knows how to strike a good balance with the jazz material. He even has Grinhauz’ cello play opposing lines against his own trumpet. This is surely one of the real gems on this album, and ends on an unresolved chord.

We return to straightahead jazz with the uptempo Stepping Up, a real old-fashioned hard bop tune in which the solos dominate, and rightly so. The Children’s Waltz is also a good composition, not another puerile-sounding tune made to please young people; Brown takes another outstanding solo on this one, as does Dillard, this time on soprano sax. Gil’s Ensaio geral is played in a nice bossa nova tempo, a perfect summertime piece, with taste and invention by the band. It’s a fine rideout to an excellent album.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Inside the Musical Mind of Dawid Lubowicz

 

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INSIDE / LUBOWICZ: Highlander on the Trip. Jazz Babariba. Memento. First Waltz. Medium. Obercology. For M.D. Turbofolk. SZYMANOWSKI: Roxana’s Song / Dawid Lubowiocz, vln/5-string vln; Krzysztof Herdzin, pno/acc/fl; Tomasz Kałwak, kbds; Robert Kubiszyn, bs-gtr/bs/fretless bs; Lukasz Żyta, dm; Jacek Kotlarski, voc / Zbigniew Seifert Foundation CD-FZS-5, available as both download & physical CD

This is violinist Dawid Lubowicz’s debut album as a leader and composer. A former member of the great Atom String Quartet, Lubowicz wanted a chance to show off his writing skills, and it is that aspect of him that comes through clearly on this disc.

When the opening track, Highlander on the Trip, started up, my first thought was that this was going to be ambient jazz, but the music quickly took a different turn towards a sort of swinging Celtic theme. In fact, what grabbed my attention most was the fact that this was a real composition and not just a “tune for jamming,” as so many so-called jazz “compositions” are nowadays. The piece has a real structure: an introduction, vamp, theme and development, the latter being the jazz solos, and all of it holds together beautifully. Vocalist Jacek Kotlarski sings along with Lubowicz’s violin in the theme, then takes a solo break of his own before the leader plays an improvisatory chorus. Although there is also a certain rock-fusion feel to the rhythm, the piece is in a fast, swinging 6/8 that really moves more like a jazz piece. A piano vamp, with Lubowicz playing high, flittering figures, leads into a solo by Herdzin in which he plays an alternate rhythm with his left hand against the 6/8 in the left.

In Jazz Barbariba, we begin with an almost stiff march tempo on the piano, but syncopation soon enters the picture as Lubowicz plays an almost atonal theme against descending chromatics on the keyboard. This is in a straight 4, and the strange opening straightens out harmonically in the bridge, returning briefly to the chromatic figures before Lubowicz goes off on a solo. When Herdzin plays his solo, the harmony is again straightened out, though it does lean towards a chromatic half-step-up-and-down sort of base. Memento is a gentle ballad, but once again one’s ear is caught by the structure of the piece, which uses an almost Bill Evans-ish chord sequence beneath the deceptively simple melody. Eventually, the tempo increases slightly and the rhythm, played by bassist Robert Kubiszyn, has a more syncopated, almost quasi-Latin feel to it. Herdzin surprisingly switches to flute here, playing a lovely solo over the chord patterns of guest pianist Tomasz Kałwak, followed by Kubiszyn on electric fretless bass. One is struck the these musicians’ ability to keep the flow of the music going, as if through-composed, rather than flying off on individual tangents that do not complement the surrounding material.

I was startled by Lubowicz’s arrangement of Roxana’s Song, a piece by revered classical composer Karol Szymanowski. I doubt that the ultra-fussy Szymanowski would care much for this treatment, which is that of a jazz waltz-turned-fusion, but it shows just how close his chromatically-based style was to that of modern jazz. First Waltz is really a quasi-waltz in tempo, alternating 3 with 4 in the rhythm (at least, that’s how it struck me) before settling into a nice, loping 3/4 time. Once again, one notes the fine structure of Lubowicz’s writing, as the melody is extended well beyond the normal eight-measure framework into something quite complex before leading into the improvised solo which continues in this vein. Herdzin’s piano solo becomes quite complex, extending the rhythmic feel and doubling it with eighths and even sixteenths, before Lubowicz reappears to calm things down.

Medium begins with a rapid, out-of-tempo introduction before settling into a sort of loping 5/4 with yet another quirky melodic line and an almost-fusion beat. The solos are again outstanding, particularly the one by Kubiszyn. Obercology is a really quirky sort of jazz mazurka, opening with Herdzin playing on the accordion, that then morphs into an uptempo swing tune in which the leader plays his violin against the accordion. Herdzin then takes off for a solo of his own, playing that instrument like a jazz piano! For M.D. (Dla M.D. in Polish) is another relaxed ballad, perhaps a bit more romantic than the ones previous but still, well written.

The only thing I didn’t care for in this album was the sound, which is bathed in echo and made to sound too much like a contemporary pop album than a jazz one. The finale, Turbofolk, begins quietly with a relaxed, out-of-tempo introduction before a hot violin lick ramps up the tempo and throws us into an asymmetric sort of folk dance tune. Both the violinist and pianist take off in fairly wild, uninhibited solos, but again pay heed to the work’s structure. A quirky interlude almost sounds like American Indian music! After a full stop that sounds like the end of the piece, Lubowicz returns with yet another solo, underscored with asymmetric drumming ‘til the finale.

This is a fascinating and, I dare say, quite original album of violin jazz, something you would never have expected in a million years. Well done!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Robert Groslot’s Witty Chamber Music

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GROSLOT: Poème secret / Eline Groslot, harp; Peter Verhoyen, fl; Geert Baekelandt, cl; Ann-Sofie Vande Ginste, Gudrun Verbanck, vln; Bieke Jacobus, vla; Lieselot Watté, cel / Confused Conversations. The Green Duck. Statement, Reflection & Conclusion / Verhoyen, pic; Stefan De Schepper, pno / Hibernaculum / Verhoyen, fl; Dimitri Mestdag, ob; Marija Pavlovic, cl; Pieter Nuytten, bsn; Eliz Erkalp, Fr-hn / The Phoenician Sailor / Verhoyen, pic; Mestdag, E-hn; Roel Avonds, bs-tb; Stefan De Schepper, pno / TYXart 18113

These works by the largely self-taught Belgian composer Robert Groslot are difficult to describe. They are bitonal but melodic in their own odd way; they have some jagged rhythms, but more often a lyrical strain. The music moves forward with a definable pulse, but also employs unusual pauses when Groslot is in the mood to do so. And they are not mood pieces or “classic lite,” not even in the Poème secret, the title of which would indicate a mood piece. Occasionally, he has the string players use the edge of their bows to produce a strange “white” sound, but never for long periods and not just for cheap effect. And there is a considerable amount of dry humor in his music that appeals to me greatly.

Moreover, his pieces have interesting variety. Confused Conversations is a more angular piece than Poème secret, sounding more like the contemporary works of composers like Dimitri Tomyczko, who use angular, syncopated figures in a sort of hocket style…except here, Groslot is only working with two instruments, piccolo and piano. By contrast, the style of Hiberniculum lies somewhere in between, pitting the odd combination of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn against each other, almost never blending the instruments except briefly in thirds. Swirling triplets in eights predominate as the piece goes on, adding to its quirky humor.

In the piccolo solo The Green Duck, Groslot pits the instrument against itself rhythmically, exploring odd harmonic balances, almost like a lame duck that is blind in one eye, limping along the shore of a pond. In The Phoenician Sailor, Groslot mixes his two styles, the lyrical and the syncopated, with good effect.

My sole complaint of Groslot’s music is its stylistic sameness, but the often unpredictable nature of his developments, such as in Statement, Reflection and Conclusion, show that he is at least a thinking composer who poses musical puzzles for himself and then solves them. Recommended with reservations.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Paul Hindemith’s Wind Sonatas

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HINDEMITH: Sonatas for Flute & Piano; English Horn & Piano; Bassoon & Piano; Oboe & Piano; Clarinet & Piano. Essay for Flute & Piano / Alexa Still, fl; Robert Walters, oboe/E-hn; Richard Hawkins, cl; George Shakakeeny, bsn; James Howsmon, pno / Oberlin Music OC18-02

Perspective is a funny thing. During his lifetime, Paul Hindemith’s music was considered, with a few exceptions (Das Marienleben and the Mathis der Maler Symphony) to be arid and unpalatable, but in recent decades it is omnipresent…and listeners seem to like it. Why? Because it never was arid and unpalatable, just not “lovely” in a purely tonal-Romantic sense, and compared to what came after him, it now sounds downright melodic despite its constantly-shifting harmonic base.

These sonatas are a perfect case in point. In the new era where composers have pretty much returned to some sort of tonality, these Hindemith works sound surprisingly contemporary. They could easily have been written by a good modern composer, and in fact they probably have been to some extent by the academic copycats (of which there are, alas, several). Moreover, Hindemith, who was a brilliant instrumentalist in his own right (he was a virtuoso violist who could also play piano and clarinet), would often brag that he could play any instrument in the orchestra with a little practice. He thus understood the capabilities, ranges and limitations of every instrument he wrote for, which makes these sonatas sound “right” for their respective instruments. The lively, dancing “Marsch” in the flute sonata is but one example among many of Hindemith in a surprisingly light mood, and is utterly delightful.

Surprisingly, the English horn sonata is also rather jolly in temperament, despite the fact that the instrument has a much narrower range of expression than the flute. The bassoon and clarinet sonatas also follow similar patterns and moods.

Indeed, if I have any criticism of the music, it is that it has a similar feel from sonata to sonata, but of course Hindemith never intended all of these sonatas to be presented back-to-back like this. Still, the performances are consistently good, and taken one at a time the sonatas, though rather light in nature, are pleasing and entertaining.

A good album, then, if lacking somewhat in variety.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Markevitch’s Great “Life for the Czar” Reissued

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GLINKA: A Life for the Czar / Boris Christoff, bass (Ivan Susanin); Teresa Stich-Randall, sop (Antonida); Nicolai Gedda, ten (Bogdan Sobinin); Mela Bugarinovitch, alto (Vanya); Djurdje Djurdjevic, bass (Sigizmund, King of Poland/Russian soldier); Zhika Yovanovic, ten (Polish courier); Belgrade National Opera Chorus; Orchestre de Concerts Lamoureux; Igor Markevitch, cond / Urania WS121.370-2

Mikhail Glinka’s 1836 opera A Life for the Czar, also known as Ivan Susanin, was one of only two of his operas to hit the big time (the other was 1842’s Ruslan und Ludmila, which initially fared very poorly at the box office), but although it was, and remains, an extraordinary score, based on a new approach to Russian music in which authentic folk themes were developed through Western aesthetics, it still doesn’t play very well or very often in the West.

This recording, which was almost slapped together in Belgrade—then part of Yugoslavia, now capital of Serbia—in 1957, was issued on EMI in England and Capitol Records (this was before EMI initiated their own Angel label for American releases) to little fanfare. It became a hot item among opera buffs but, due to generally disappointing sales figures (possibly because EMI was still too cheap at this point to record in stereo), it didn’t last in the catalog. Despite my being a voracious seeker of opera recordings from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, the only time I ever ran across a copy of this album was in New York City specialist shops, where it had a price tag north of $100, which was too rich for my blood.

Undoubtedly, the most unusual casting choice was that of American expatriate soprano Teresa Stich-Randall as Antonida, and she may have been another reason for its lack of sales. It wasn’t that Stich-Randall had a poor voice—on the contrary, she was a standout at Columbia University when just 17, where she had a role in the world premiere performance of Virgil Thomson’s opera The Mother of Us All, sang the Priestess in Aïda in Arturo Toscanini’s televised performance of that opera at age 19, and at age 20 was chosen by Toscanini to sing Nannetta in Toscanini’s 1950 performance of Falstaff—but the extreme purity of her voice, almost vibratoless, made her a pariah in her own country. Contemporary opera fans, used to voices with rich vibratos, didn’t take too well to Stich-Randall, so she had to go to Western Europe to make a career, mostly as a Mozart specialist. This recording marks a rare (perhaps her only) venture into Russian opera.

The plot, though rather basic, is still somewhat interesting. The invading Polish Army is trying to locate and kill the new Russian Czar. Ivan Susanin, an aged farmer, vows with his son Vanya to protect him; he promises to lead the Poles to him, but in fact he has alerted his son-in-law, Bogdan Sobinin, who is amassing an armed force to meet the Poles in the woods and kill them. By the time the Poles discover the ruse it is too late for them to retreat, but in retaliation they kill Susanin. Thus, he gives his life for the Czar.

The version of the opera used on this recording is the one re-orchestrated by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky was absolutely keen on re-orchestrating everyone else’s Russian music; he just couldn’t help himself. He just had to put his stamp on others’ work and make sure that you, the listener, admired him for writing orchestrations that the original composers didn’t want. Of course, he did the same for Mussorgsky and even touched up a little Tchaikovsky. It was kind of his hobby.

Yet the lushness of Rimsky’s orchestration is offset to a large degree by both the mono sound and the conducting of Igor Markevitch, a Russian conductor whose aesthetics originally lay in modern, Stravinskian music. He was, to some extent, an admirer of such conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Artur Rodziński as well, thus he favored brisk tempi and a lean, clear sonority that cuts through the overly-mushy scoring that Rimsky used. There aren’t that many other recordings of this opera: an even older mono recording with Maxim Mikhailov as Susanin, Georgi Nelepp as Sobinin and conductor Vasili Nebolsin on Naxos Historical; Nicolai Ghiuselev as Susanin, Elena Stoyanova as Antonida, Roumen Doikov as Sobinin and conductor Ivan Marinov on Capriccio; a Mark Ermler recording from the 1980s with Evgeny Nesterenkov as Susanin, Bella Rudenko as Antonida and Vladimir Shcherbakov as Sobinin; and a Sony Classical version conducted by the late Emil Tchakarov with Boris Martinovich as Susanin, Alexandrina Pendachanska as Antonida and Chris Merritt as Sobinin. There are others, of course, but mostly they’ve disappeared from the catalog. None of them are as good as this performance.

It’s not just because of Markevitch, though he is a major factor in the performance. It’s also because of the presence of Boris Christoff in his prime as Susanin, tenor Nicolai Gedda in absolutely splendid voice as Sobinin (listen to him ring out those difficult high notes in his aria, “Brothers of the storm”!), and the very Slavic sound of the Bulgarian Opera Chorus. Stich-Randall is, to my ears, superb as Antonida. Her voice is purer than any of the other sopranos on competing recordings and, if she sounds inherently less Slavic than the rest of the cast (filled out, mostly, by other Bulgarian singers), her singing of the role is not that far removed from the very Western-sounding coloratura soprano Antonina Nezhdanova, who recorded arias from the opera in the early acoustic days, and who was greatly admired in old Russia for her singing of the role. Antonida’s music doesn’t call for or require Russian passion so much as it requires absolute iron control of the singer’s high range and an arsenal of staccato, fioratura and trills, all of which Stich-Randall possessed in spades. Interestingly, her method of note-separation in the coloratura passages is very similar to that practice by the late Dutch soprano Cristina Deutekom. Both sopranos were criticized by listeners for this technique, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it then and I don’t hear anything wrong with it now. It certainly allows the listener to hear every single note in her music as if it were played on a piano or a flute.

The one failing Christoff had as a singer was his inability to interpret the text of his roles with any real variety of tone color. He had but two volume levels, soft and loud. His voice always sounded rich and full at any point in his range and at either volume level, and when you saw him on stage he was a very great actor, indeed, but in just listening to him he tends to be rather two-dimensional. Of course, none of the other basses noted above sing as well as he did, although Nesterenko came close, and in this recording he sounds less snarly than usual in the early part of the role. Gedda, at that time and in this role, is also somewhat two-dimensional, but that’s the nature of the character. Sobinin is not much different from Arnold in Rossini’s William Tell, a hot-headed young man who just can’t wait to fight and die to protect his country. In this context Stich-Randall’s exquisite, sensitively-phrased Antonida sounds melting and sweet without being cloying. Listen to the Act 1 finale and you’ll get a good idea of how they complement each other. Clearly, Gedda seldom sang as consistently well on his other opera recordings, the 1960 Carmen and 1966 Abduction from the Seraglio excepted, and neither one of those operas calls for the range, both stylistically and in terms of high notes, that Life for the Czar does. And interestingly, contralto Mela Bugarinovitch, though the least well-known of the four principals, give us the most interesting interpretation. My sole complaint about the opera is that there is far too much ballet music in Act 2—14 minutes of it, in fact—and it is inferior to the rest of the opera, particularly the great last act where Susanin gets his very dramatic scene, which Christoff interprets brilliantly (evidently remembering how Chaliapin sang it).

For whatever reason, this seems to be the second time Urania has issued this recording on CD; there’s an earlier version with a different cover issued as WS121.137from 2012. I haven’t the foggiest idea why, but sound quality on this release, at least, is first-class.

Perhaps some listeners will feel that Markevitch’s Orchestre de Concerts Lamoureux sounds too French, or at least too cosmopolitan, for this Russian opera, but remember, fusing Western and Eastern culture was what Glinka had in mind. Surely, the Yugoslavian chorus sings its heart out, and this helps, too. It’s small wonder that this is the classic recording of this opera. Where could you find a cast like this today—particularly a soprano like Stich-Randall and a tenor like Gedda in his early prime?

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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Bobby Sanabria Revamps “West Side Story”

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WEST SIDE STORY REIMAGINED / BERNSTEIN: Prologue. Jet Song. America. Gee, Officer Krupke. Tonight. Gym Scene: Blues/Mambo; Cha Cha Cha. Maria. Cool. The Rumble. One Hand, One Heart. Somewhere. Epilogue/Finale / Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band: Kevin Vryan, Saheef Clayton, Max Darche, Andrew Neesley, tp; David Miller, Tim Sessions, Armando Vergara, tb; Chris Washburne, bs-tb; David De Jesus, s-sax/fl/a-sax; Andrew Gould, a-sax/fl; Peter Brainin, t-sax/fl; Yaacov Mayman, t-sax/fl/cl; Danny Rivera, bar-sax; Gabrielle Garo, fl/pic; Ben Sutin, el-vln; Darwin Noguera, pn; Leo Traversa, el-bs; Bobby Sanabria, dm/cowbells/police whistle/samba whistle/voc; Oreste Abrantes, conga/itotele bata dm/voc (Maria only); Takao Heisho, claves/Cuban guiro macho/cencerro/Puerto Rican guacharo; okonkolo batá dm/maracas/shekere/tamb/cuica/ pandeiro/triangle/gong/police siren / Jazzheads JH1231

Kent's_West_Side_StoryIt’s been a long time since I can recall a full-length jazz album version of the music from West Side Story—57 years, in fact, when the great jazz arranger Johnny Richards revamped the Broadway score for Stan Kenton’s orchestra. Those arrangements were so good that Kenton won a Grammy the following year (1962), one which he openly and proudly credited to Richards. In fact, Kenton’s drummer of the time, Jerry McKenzie, said, “I love playing Johnny’s music, and so did Stan. West Side Story was probably the toughest album I ever recorded (source: Wikipedia).”

Here, Bobby Sanabria, who was only four years old when Kenton’s album was released in 1961, takes an entirely different approach to the music. The arrangements, by several different writers—Jeremy Fletcher, Niko Siebold, Jeff Lederer, Matt Wong, Danny Rivers, Nate Sparks, Eugene Marlowe, Andrew Neesley and Takao Heisho—are much more Latin in their rhythmic feel, using a great deal of percussion and plenty of solo work. I think the biggest differences are in the instrumentation and use of harmony. Richards, who arranged the very first jazz-soloist-with-strings album in 1946 with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (an album that the record company hated because it was neither easy listening nor pure jazz…the test pressing were unceremoniously dumped into a garbage can, from which someone, perhaps Dizzy himself, rescued them from oblivion), was always very concerned with interesting harmonic progressions and rich timbral blends. Richards’ West Side Story has a certain Latin feel to it—he was, after all, Mexican (his real name was Juan Manuel Cascales)—but what continually grabs the ear in his arrangements were the very advanced and rich-toned orchestration (this was the period in which Kenton used mellophones in the brass section to give the orchestra a richer sound without the hassle of training French horn players to swing). Although Sanabria does have a few low-range instruments in his band (bass trombone and baritone sax, and they are quite audible in some of the arrangements  such as America), the general sound of his orchestra is towards the kind of swinging Latin-shout approach that the late Perez Prado used to great effect, except with flutes for color. The brass section in particular has the same kind of exuberant shout that Prado’s did; and yes, I absolutely ADORED Perez Prado’s band back in the late ‘50s when I first heard it (Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Patricia, Mambo No. 5, etc.).

And yet there are times when Sanabria’s arrangements give you a little taste of the kind of subtlety that Richards employed, i.e. the latter section of that same arrangement of America where the flutes and clarinets replace the heavy brass textures. These moments are quite wonderful to hear. Moreover, and I cannot stress this enough, Sanabria’s soloists all say something on their instruments. They’re not just wild, out-of-control screamers who fly off the handle and go into pretzel-twist solos; they listen to each other, and in a certain sense improvise on the melodies as much as on the chords. How rare is that in today’s jazz? I can’t even begin to tell you!

In Gee, Officer Krupke (which was my favorite song from the West Side Story score when I first heard it), Sanabria plays it in a loping 6/8 for a while before switching to a Latin-based 4. And oh my Lord, how this band kicks butt! They are one of the most alive-sounding orchestras I’ve heard since the old Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band of the 1970s and ‘80s. They play not only with an unbridled enthusiasm, but take the frequent tempo changes in stride. Shareef Clayton’s trumpet solo with plunger in this number sounded a lot like Cootie Williams. The scoring for Tonight is altogether softer from the very beginning, using the tenor and baritone saxes with bass trombone (and flutes up top) to create a blend not too dissimilar to some of the effects Richards achieved in 1961. Yes, the trumpet section also gets some licks in, but it ends with a soft piano solo before the band swings into the Gym Scene with a loose-limbed swing beat that harks back to the kind of rhythm the Jimmie Lunceford band used—except with far more imaginative scoring.

Interestingly, there are two different scorings for Maria here: the first in the Gym Scene where it is a cha cha, arranged by Nate Sparks, then in the full version of the tune which opens CD 2, arranged by Marlow. The most straightahead swing arrangement on the whole album is Andrew Neesley’s version of Cool, which sounds for all the world like the Akiyoshi band…or like Akiyoshi’s idol, Duke Ellington, back when he had Chuck Conners on bass trombone and Willie “Cat” Anderson screaming in the altissimo range on trumpet. And throughout it all, Sanabria’s drumming is both propulsive and flexible, sounding at times like Prado’s drummer, Tito Puente, or Buddy Rich, as the mood dictates. His extended solo on The Rumble – Rumba sounds the most like Puente. Fletcher’s arrangement of Somewhere is the most rhythmically complex chart on the entire album, but it also swings (and features an electric violin solo by Ben Sutin that almost sounds like Jean-Luc Ponty.

My only complaint about the album was its being split up onto 2 CDs. Since the whole thing, with spoken introductions, runs 79:38, it could easily have fit onto one disc. But the proceeds from this album are being donated to Puerto Rican hurricane relief, so the $25 asking price for the physical CDs (the download-only version runs $10) is not too bad. You can order the album at Kickstarter by clicking here. Believe me, it’s well worth the investment. Lenny Bernstein would have really liked this album, I think, despite the fact that he himself kept trying to turn the musical in a full-fledged opera with legitimate orchestral scoring!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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