The Janczarski-Siddik Quartet in Contemplation

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CONTEMPLATION / TYNER: Contemplation. W. SHAW: Sweet Love of Mine. MINGUS: Self-Portrait in Three Colors. J. PEPPER: Witchi Tai To.* CHERRY: Complete Communion. SIDDIK: Dedication. J. HENDERSON: Caribbean Fire Dance / Rasul Siddik, tpt/fl/*voc; Borys Janczarski, t-sax; Michael Jaros, bs; Kazimierz Jonkisz, dm / For Tune Records, no number (live: Warsaw, January 24, 2020)

Tenor saxist Borys Janczarski, whose album with co-leader Stephen McCraven I praised way back in September 2016 (the first year of this blog), returns here with an almost entirely different lineup except for the new co-leader, trumpeter-flautist Rasul Siddik, simply a sideman in 2016.

And except for the fact that both CDs include one composition by Siddik, the focus here is also different, leaning on compositions by famous jazz musicians. The only name I don’t recognize is Jim Pepper, but I would think that most serious jazz listeners are familiar with McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw, Charles Mingus, Don Cherry and Joe Henderson.

Talk about coincidence! In my review of the Matthew Shipp Trio album I mentioned Tyner as a vastly underrated pianist. As a composer, he was good in a solid 1960s sort of way, and this piece, built on very simple 11-note motifs, is a good example of his work. As in his previous CD, Janczarski’s dry, tubular sound on tenor is reminiscent of ‘60s players as well though again his improvisations are entirely his own. It’s a somewhat “higher” tenor sound than that of Coltrane, but you can tell that Coltrane is one of his main inspirations. He also plays with incredible intensity and, best of all, no rock beats!!! Siddik’s sound and style, on the other hand, are reminiscent of Don Cherry, perhaps with a bit of Woody Shaw thrown in for good measure.

Except for the opening themes which are played in unison by the two horns, this is pretty much a free-blowing date. This almost sounds like the kind of jazz record that would have been issued back in the ‘60s by Impulse! or Blue Note. Pure jazz, devoid of tricks, cutesiness and fooling around. They dive right in and give you the pure stuff, and by that I mean that every note and phrase on this album is played from the gut as much as from the heart.

Woody Shaw’s Sweet Love of Mine, a piece I was not familiar with, is a medium-tempo minor-key swinger, again firmly in the Blue Note tradition. I don’t know if this set was edited for the CD, meaning that some performances were left out, but if it isn’t it surely puts this little band at or near the top of improvising European quartets. Bassist Jaros and drummer Jonkisz don’t fool around, either; they lay down a solid, swinging beat and just keep plugging away at it, with Jonkisz playing some extremely complex patterns as Jaros maintains a solid 4. And all of the solos are interesting; they make musical sense and go somewhere, particularly the leader’s. Jaros gets a solo on this piece, too, and although not flashy it’s right in step with the music. Jonkisz’s solo is wonderfully complex.

The group’s performance of Mingus’ Self-Portrait in Three Colors would have made its composer proud: a warm, loving treatment of the theme and a series of improvisations. Jaros plays bowed bass behind the two horns, as Mingus himself did at times, before launching into a pizzicato solo that starts off the proceedings. Here, Jaros is more imaginative that on Sweet Love of Mine, perhaps inspired by the composer’s own playing on performances of this tune. Pepper’s Witchi Tai To is a simple, funky little piece on which Siddik speak-sings the strange lyrics (printed in the booklet) while Complete Communion is a typical Don Cherry sort of line, sounding very much like the kind of music he made with Ornette Coleman. Siddik’s muted solo is a gem, reminiscent of the way Dizzy would play with a mute in. Janczarski later joins him for a two-way improvisation that is endlessly fascinating.

Siddik’s Dedication is a simple hard bop line taken at a medium tempo, and the composer is the first soloist up. His second chorus is the real gem, inventive and exploratory. Janczarski is slow and meaty in his solo, building slowly but surely to impassioned climaxes. Then comes the drum solo, and it too is a gem.

The closer is Joe Henderson’s Caribbean Fire Dance, which has an irregular pulse at times and a simple but ever-shifting melodic line. Again the solos are excellent and the overall performance, well, fiery. Janczarski tosses in a few Coltrane-like licks.

This is an excellent album for those who are tired of over-fancy arrangements and cute tricks in jazz playing nowadays—a real antidote to the “new” West Coast jazz scene here in the U.S., which seems to be overloaded with tinkly pianists and female jazz singers who whisper songs from the heart. It’s music played with real heart and soul.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The JCA at the BPC (It’s a Boston Thing)

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RABSON: Romanople. Super Eyes – Private Heroes. HARRIS: The Latest. PILKINGTON: The Sixth Snake. HARRIS: Orange, Yellow, Blue.* KATZ: A Wallflower in the Amazon + / JCA (Jazz Composers’ Alliance) Orch.: Mike Peipman, Dan Rosenthal, Jerry Sabatini, tpt; Jason Camelio, Bob Pilkington, tb; David Harris, tb/tuba; Jim Mosher, Fr-hn; Mimi Rabson, Helen Sherrah-Davies, 5-str vln; Junko Fujiwara, cel; Hiro Honshuko, fl/EWI; Rick Stone, a-sax; Lihi Haruvi, a-sax/s-sax; Phil Scarff, t-sax/cl/s-sax; Melanie Howell-Brooks, bar-sax/bs-cl; Vessela Stoyanova, vib/marimba; Maxim Lubarsky, pno; Norm Zocher, gt; Jesse Williams, bs; Tony “Thunder” Smith, dm; Gilbert Mansour, perc; Rebecca Shrimpton, voc; Tino D’Agostino, *David Harris, +Darrell Katz, cond / JCA Recordings 1805 (live: Boston, October 4, 2018)

Although I like this album very much, I have to put in a small complaint. Please don’t assume that every reviewer knows your regional acronyms! The JCA part was explained on the back cover of the album as well as in the promo sheet as “Jazz Composers’ Alliance,” but it took me a while to find, in teeny tiny print on the album notes, that BPC stands for the Berklee Performance Center. Tell us where you’re playing and make it plain!

The album consists of six pieces, two written by violinist Mimi Rabson, two by David Harris, and one each by Bob Pilkington and Darrell Katz. The opener, Romanople, has an arresting 12/8 beat and the kind of Middle Eastern melodic line that one associates with Rabih Abou-Khalil…at least until the 2:10 mark, when we suddenly shift over to a sort of Middle Eastern polka, complete with tuba playing the bass line, which them turns into Klezmer with Phil Scarff playing the clarinet…followed in turn by a slow, free jazz interlude. One thing you’ve got to say for the JCA, they are one wildly eclectic bunch. And I love it! Although cellist Junko Fujiwara does indeed play an improvised solo, this is largely a through-composed piece and a good one. Its eclecticism reminded me very much of the kind of music that the Willem Breuker Kollektief played in the 1980s and ‘90s. Perhaps fittingly, it explodes in a free jazz free-for-all, with every musician for him or herself before the violin returns to finish it off.

The Latest, by trombone/tuba player David Harris, starts out with soft wind and brass mixtures playing a slow melodic line. The bass comes in playing double time while the top line continues, then piano and drums suddenly turn it into a medium-tempo swinger with a Latin beat. The development section includes a wordless vocal by Rebecca Shrimpton and a bass clarinet solo by Melanie Howell-Brooks. Harris explains that he used the pentatonic scale in this work as a nod to his love of Thai music, and although he uses no traditional melody he uses the Thai practice of adding new textures and phrases to the repeating melody. Once again, I want to point out, the composition is itself the star of the show here despite solos by violinist Melanie Howell-Brooks and guitarist Norm Zocher (the latter playing in a disgusting rock style that absolutely ruined the piece for me while he was performing).

Next up is trombonist Bob Pilkington’s The Sixth Snake, which starts out with soft vibes, bass and drums before going into a smeared slow motif played by the trombones overlapping one another. Pilkington admits that this piece began its life as a composition exercise using a number sequence, but he completely reworked it to create this music. Eventually the trombones (now joined, I think, by one trumpet) play a pleasant if ambiguous melody; the piano softly but surely doubles the tempo in the background while the foreground remains the same; a bit of a soft rock beat enters the picture (again, folks…stop putting rock music in jazz. It doesn’t belong. R&B beat, fine; that started out as a jazz beat. Rock beat, no; I don’t care what the hell Miles Davis and the Brecker Brothers were up to in the 1970s, it was an aberration and it doesn’t fit). Things then slow down for an out-of-tempo piano solo by Maxim Lubarsky, kind of nice but somewhat meandering for my taste. After going pretty much nowhere for a while, Lubarsky finally stops and the trombones re-enter with their theme. Pilkington himself plays a nice, burred solo. By and large, however, I found this piece rather static, in part due to the recurring rock beat, but Phil Scarff’s soprano sax solo is really awful: whiny, repetitive, and saying absolutely nothing. Do yourself a favor and just skip this track.

David Harris’ Orange, Yellow, Blue starts off, oddly enough, in the same vein as The Sixth Snake except that here we have the trumpets playing the slow motif instead of trombones. This morphs into an irregular-meter beat with a Latin touch to it. I think I also heard Shrimpton’s voice singing along with the high-lying melodic line that follows, after which Dan Rosenthal plays a very good trumpet solo. Then, alas, we again move into a rock beat. It morphs into a Middle East sort of rhythm, but again back to a rock beat.

Music lesson for the JCA: rock beat ≠ jazz beat.

Darrell Katz’ A Wallflower in the Amazon uses a text by his late wife Paula Tatarunis. This is a truly strange, impressionistic piece that opens with violin, cello and muted trumpet playing atonal figures. The text tells of a bookish but intrepid person’s visit to the Amazon jungle. Although Rebecca Shrimpton has a fine voice, I had trouble understanding several of the lyrics and thus couldn’t get much out of them, but the music is utterly fascinating. This is clearly one of the finest pieces on the entire album; even the solos are good, particularly Hiro Honshuko on the EWI. But once again, our drummer felt inclined to return to a rock beat.

The CD wraps up with Super Eyes – Private Heroes by Rabson, and entirely different kind of piece from Romanople. This one is a hard-charging, straightahead jazz tune with an equally hard-charging baritone sax solo by Melanie Howell-Brooks. Shrimpton’s voice is again woven into the fabric of the orchestra, and there’s a certain something about this piece that reminded me of the Stan Kenton band at its best. Helen Sherrah-Davis again takes a solo on the five-string violin, and a superb one it is.

So there’s my opinion of this disc out of the clear blue sky. I liked a lot of it but heartily disliked some of it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Chadwick Plays Music of “The Blue Sea”

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MESSIAEN: Catalogue d’oiseaux, Book I, Nos. 1-3. Song Thrush and Thekla Larks.* Golden Oriole &Garden Warbler.* GORTON: Ondine. SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Sonata No. 3. ANON.: Postlude* / Roderick Chadwick, pno; *Peter Sheppard Skærved, Shir Victoria Levy, vln / Divine Art 25209

British pianist Roderick Chadwick has chosen here music of birdsongs by Messiaen, a piece by David Gorton based on the water nymph Ondine, and Karol Szymanowski’s Third Piano Sonata, interspersed with two independent pieces by Messiaen and ending with an original Postlude. These latter three pieces are played with two violinists.

Chadwick takes an unusual approach to Messiaen’s music, more angular and “”wide-awake” and less softly impressionistic, but this is an approach that I liked very much, as it brings out the structure in the works without sacrificing a legato feeling. It is similar to the way Joanna MacGregor plays this composer’s music. In addition to bringing out the structure better, it also brings the composer’s music more in line with contemporary works which are built around the same sort of atonal framework combined with a rhythmic pulse. His touch on the keyboard is also more delicate than MacGregor’s in this sort of music. But the one thing it does not do is to evoke a mood; thus, if this was Chadwick’s intent, it misses the mark.

The Messiaen pieces played by the violins, however, are also crisp performances, in fact using straight tone. Straight tone in 20th century music? I have no idea if this is what Messiaen called for, but somehow I doubt it but, again, it is effective in its own way.

Gorton’s Ondine sounds a bit like atonal Debussy, and is actually played with more atmosphere than the Messiaen pieces. It’s a fascinating work, an early piece by this composer and very interesting in the way he carefully places his notes so that they make an attractive pattern despite the atonality.

Chadwick’s performance of the Szymanowski Piano Sonata No. 3 is absolutely superb, catching the breathless feeling and ambiguous feeling as if one were floating in a sea of atonality perfectly.

A good album, then, well worth exploring.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Huberman Duo & Trio Play Polish Works

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SZYMANOWSKI: Violin Sonata, Op. 9. PANUFNIK: Piano Trio.* BACEWICZ: Violin Sonata No. 4 / Huberman *Duo & Trio: Magdalena Ziarkowska-Kolacka, vln; Barbara Karaśkiewicz, pno; Sergei Rysanov, cel / Divine Art 25206

The Huberman Duo (and Trio) Aare named after the great, and still vastly underrated, Polish-Jewish violinist Bronisław Huberman, whose work I reviewed on a reissue CD in July of this year, but alas, violinist Magdalena Ziarkowska-Kolacka’s playing bears no resemblance to his. Which isn’t to say that she isn’t good—she is, and very good, in fact—but she uses a consistent light vibrato and a sweeping legato that are worlds apart from Huberman’s edgy style of playing and constant vacillation between straight tone and vibrato. Just saying.

Nonetheless, she and pianist Barbara Karaśkiewicz really tear into the early Szymanowski Violin Sonata with passion and sweep. At this stage of his career, Szymanowski had not yet found the more harmonically modern style that would make him both famous and infamous (musicians loved his music, but he died broke); it is, rather, in a late-Romantic vein which owes much more to Schumann and Brahms than it does to Scriabin and Stravinsky, whose music informed his own work later on. The second, livelier theme in the second-movement “Scherzando” is particularly interesting. The lively third-movement “Allegro molto quasi presto” sounds the most like the Szymanowski we know from the mazurkas. The last section features some fancy fast tremolo playing in the violin part and just a hint of the Szymanowski harmonies to come.

Normally I’m not crazy about the music of Andrej Panufnik, but I really enjoyed this piano trio. Written in 1934, when he was only 19 years old, it is an extremely interesting work, sort of a combination of Polish and Stravinskian rhythms with Debussy-like harmony. Here, Panufnik alternates between sweeping lyricism and fast, angular passages, but does so in a way that makes musical sense and develops logically. And suddenly, in the midst of the first-movement “Poco adagio,” Panufnik suddenly introduces a lively dance rhythm with bitonal harmony which relieves the mood of the piece. The liner notes indicate that, around the time he wrote this piece, he was also drawn to American jazz, but to be honest there is no jazz influence in this work.

Interestingly, although the cello is present in the first movement, it doesn’t really seem to play that big of a role in the music. It isn’t until the second movement that you really notice it, but even here it only plays occasionally. Sergei Rysanov is a good cellist but, to my ears, not possessed of a particularly rich or interesting tone. This movement goes right into the “Presto” without a break, and here Panufnik is particularly inventive, playing with the 6/8 scherzo rhythm in various permutations, even shifting away to a regular 4/4 after the opening theme statement. And the entire movement is playful and shows great imagination. Well done!

I can’t say for certain that Bacewicz’ Violin Sonata No. 4 is the best-known work on this program, since her music is still not played half as often in the West as it should be, but I do have two other performances of it, by violinists Piotr Plawner and Annabelle Berthomé-Reynolds in sets of her complete violin sonatas. This performance is also a good one, leaning more in the direction of a legato flow but still bringing out all the salient details of the score. It still irks me that she is so marginalized in England and America but, then again, so are Szymanowski and Weinberg (though the latter composer is finally picking up in performances).

A very fine and enjoyable CD, then. If you don’t have the Szymanowski and Panufnik pieces in your collection, this is clearly a disc you will want.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Music of Farhat & Tafreshipour

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PERSIAN AUTUMN / FARHAT: Toccata. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2. TAFRESHIPOUR: Yasna. Shabahang. Pendar for Piano. Celebration at Pasargadae / Mary Dullea, pno / Métier 29610

This unusual album features Irish pianist Mary Dullea playing the music of Iranian (Persian) composers Hormoz Farhat (the booklet says b. 1928, but Wikipedia says b. 1930) and Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour (b. 1974). The connection is that Farhat is a fellow at Trinity College in Dublin while Tafreshipour works primarily in Great Britain.

Judging from the opening selection, Farhat’s Toccata, the composer tends to combine melodies and rhythms from his native country with Western harmony and form. The result is indeed curious, combining simplistic and complex features. Farhat uses passing tones a great deal in this work, indeed often changing the rhythm and meter as the piece goes along. This creates an unusual tension between the melodic line and its development against the oft-shifting harmony and meter.

The same aesthetics are brought to bear in the two piano sonatas; perhaps Farhat has a different “voice” that he uses for non-piano works, but in his keyboard pieces he pursues a similar style. Yet the music is very interesting and, to judge from this recording (the only one I’ve heard of his music, obviously), Dullea plays it with passion and drive. Also interesting, the music seems to be constructed from the top line down rather than from the bass line up, meaning that the harmony and the lower notes are led by the melodic contours of these pieces. This is rather the opposite of a lot of Western music, particularly that of Bach and Brahms, where the bass line is developed into the harmony and the top line follows. (This is one reason why newcomers to these two composers sometimes have a difficulty in grasping their music, since the “melodies” are not conventionally melodic as in the case of Beethoven or Schubert.) The second movement of the first sonata is particularly sparse; though this sonata was written between 1955 and 1957, when Farhat was studying with Lukas Foss, it sounds like some of the “spacier” music of today. In the third movement, Farhat indulges in some interesting bitonality, having the left hand play in one key and the right hand in another, though they do come together for moments of harmonic consonance. Nonetheless, his music has a distinctly exotic sound. The last movement, with its stiffish rhythms, shows some of the influence of Stravinsky.

The second sonata dates form much later, in 2010 when the composer was 80 years old. The liner notes tell us that the music is “more expansive, melodious and less abrasive that the short movements of the First Sonata,” but what I hear is simply a better-integrated use of Asian harmonies and rhythms within a more legato, but not necessarily more melodious, framework. Farhat was still juxtaposing different meters and still building his music from the top down; it’s just that the result is a bit more flowing, that’s all. Which isn’t to say that it’s not an interesting work—it is—only that it’s not necessarily more melodious. Whereas the first sonata is in four relatively short movements, the second is in three, but the longer first movement (10:57) is only about 2 ½ minutes longer than the first two of the first sonata combined. Here, too, Farhat includes some right-hand trills here and there which were not part of his vocabulary in 1955-57. At times the development is very tightly constructed while at other times it ruminates a bit.

The second movement has a spaciness about it that is similar to the second movement of the first sonata but, again, the melodic flow is just a bit more legato. The third movement is a quirky, bitonal scherzo, turning into a fugue around the 3:05 mark.

Tafreshipour’s Yasna is a slow-moving piece using similar harmonies and melodic lines to Farhat’s music but, at least in this piece, is less quirky in its rhythms. Indeed, this is almost a “mood” piece, delicate and with space between the notes. In the notes, the composer states that the piece was inspired by his travels to the Iranian city of Yazd, where several Zoroastrians live; “Yasna” is the term given in the Avestan language to their central form of worship. It goes on far too long and says very little. Pendar is even slower, Shabahang a little quicker in tempo, but much of the same, although there is more going on in the latter piece. By and large, Tafreshipour is a one-mood composer, and it’s not a mood I respond to.

A split review, then, since I really liked Farhat’s music and Dullea’s playing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Emerson Quartet Plays Schumann

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SCHUMANN: String Quartets Nos. 1-3, Op. 41 / Emerson String Quartet / Pentatone PTC869

Oddly enough, despite the huge amount of Schumann’s music I have in my collection, I had never heard his String Quartets before, thus this new release by the Emerson Quartet was most welcome to me.

Because of my lack of exposure to the music, I investigated the recordings of these pieces by the Takács Quartet (Nos. 1 & 2) on SWR Music. The Takács Quartet played the slow introduction to the first quartet with a more incisive sound and less  of a “droopy” feeling, and when they came to the “Allegro” section, there was more of a rhythmic “lift” to the music. My general impression is that the Emerson Quartet plays with a heavier vibrato, which normally doesn’t bother me, but in a way I felt that although their emphasis on this vibrato made the music sound more robust, it took a little away from the rhythmic drive. In the second movement, their tempo was virtually the same as the Takács Quartet and the results not that far apart; here, the Emerson Quartet finds a nice groove for the rhythm and plays with a sharper attack.

The real problem with the first two movements of the first quartet, however, lies with Schumann and not with the interpreters. Compared to the last two movements, and indeed with his piano and orchestral works, the music here is rather ordinary and predictable, which is not like Schumann at all. But all this changes when you reach the “Adagio,” an extraordinarily diverse and fascinating piece, and the “Presto” finale is extremely interesting. This sounds like the Schumann I know and love, and by this point the Emerson quartet has overcome its slightly sluggish reading of the first movement.

The second quartet begins “Allegro vivace” with no warm-up via a slow introduction. Emerson’s performance of this movement is on a par with the Takács Quartet, in fact even more sprightly. In fact, their performance is also better than that of the Fine Arts Quartet on Naxos, which frankly doesn’t seem to be all that energetic, but the added ambience around the quartet may have mitigated some of their playing. In terms of musical invention, again the first two movements struck me as “ordinary”-sounding. Once again, it is in the third movement that the music really comes alive for me and says something out of the ordinary. The last movement is also imaginative, with several surprising turns of phrase.

The third quartet is a bit different, for here the first movement is interesting and quite innovative, particularly in terms of rhythm. There are several sections here, some of which seem to spring up spontaneously yet are somehow knitted into the whole. The second movement, too, is quite interesting, with Schumann taking little luftpausen here and there before propelling the quartet through a fast-paced series of triplet figures. In this quartet, it is the slow third movement that sounds the most ordinary and least Schumann-like in the beginning; as we get into the development section, there are numerous surprises. And once again we get a lively and interesting last movement, so by and large, I’d say that the third quartet is certainly the best as well as the most consistent.

My verdict, then, is that these are very fine performances with the exception of the introduction to the first movement of the first quartet, but the problem for me is the music. Schumann was obviously inspired only intermittently in the writing the first three quartets.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Matthew Shipp’s “Unidentifiable” Trio

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THE UNIDENTIFIABLE / SHIPP: Blue Transport System. Trance Frame. Phantom Journey. Dark Sea Negative Charge. The Dimension. Loop. The Unidentifiable. Virgin Psych Space 1. Virgin Psych Space 2. Regeneration. New Heaven and New Earth / Matthew Shipp Trio: Shipp, pno; Michael Bisio, bs; Newman Taylor Baker, dm / ESP-Disk’ 5039, available at http://www.espdisk.com/5039.html

Having been greatly impressed by pianist Matthew Shipp’s playing with avant-garde saxists Ivo Perelman and Rich Halley, I was curious to hear him in a somewhat more “standard” piano trio setting. As the notes put it, “In this setting, a non-mainstream player such as Shipp can infiltrate Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and other Establishment bastions in a familiar format and then unleash his ideas on audiences that might not normally be exposed to his style. Thanks to hearing it in the communal language of the piano trio, they can better understand the message the Matthew Shipp Trio has to deliver.”

Even in the opening, the regular-meter Blue Transport System, the discerning listener can tell that there is much more to Matthew Shipp than just the lovely melodic line he creates or the way he develops his theme. Although using fairly simple blocks of sound in this piece, and a regular meter, his harmonic sense is restless and diverse. He subtly moves the harmony to the right and then to the left, then somehow sideways. In this respect, one might think him a disciple of Bill Evans, and perhaps he does like Evans’ playing…after all, Bill himself was at times a much more modern, even avant-garde pianist than most of his fans realized (listen to him play on George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age or Living Time Orchestra albums). By contrast, Trance Frame is an extended drum solo by Newman Taylor Baker, with the pianist picking things up again in Phantom Journey. Here, Shipp presents more complex rhythms; in fact, the piece itself is an experiment in working around repeated rhythmic chords played in one key, mostly Eb, with occasional crushed chords and irregular meters being played by bass and drums. The one big difference between Shipp and Evans is his touch on the keyboard. Whereas Evans almost always preferred a soft touch, even when swinging mightily, Shipp plays with more force in addition to a deep-in-the-keys sound which owes more to McCoy Tyner, another pianist who I admire greatly. (In fact, although he did indeed become famous, particularly during his tenure with John Coltrane, I never felt that Tyner has ever gotten his just due as one of the greatest pianist of our time, particularly when compared to the highly overrated and often boring Keith Jarrett.)

Dark Sea Negative Charge is a slow piece but, despite the brief, almost truncated opening melody, not a ballad in the strict sense of the word. It’s just a slow piece in which Shipp explores the sounds of chords held with the sustain pedal in a sequence that sometimes sounds planned and sometimes sounds random. This is a man who really listens to music as he plays—a musician who, in the parlance of jazz musicians, has “golden ears.” It’s an experiment in sound itself, how the sustaining of certain notes and chords around which the bass and drums add their own ideas resonates with the listener, rather than a “composition” in the strict sense. Towards the end, piano and drums fall away to allow bassist Bisio to have his say, also played sparsely, repeating the same two or three notes over and over in slightly different rhythms.

Very cleverly, this piece moves into The Dimension without a break. This presents Shipp in single-note playing in both the treble and bass, sometimes dislocating the beat between his two hands so that one hears two rhythms at once. The bass and drums do not appear on this track. Loop is a faster piece, and here we have Shipp and his trio at their most explorative and least conventional-sounding, scattering notes hither and yon in a mosaic of sounds to which the bass and drums contribute. This is music on the level of what Shipp normally plays with Perelman.

The title track returns us somewhat to a more conventionally swinging piano trio sound, albeit one in which the harmony is often bitonal or at least moves around more than normal. It’s a piece that could almost pass in a regular jazz club, and wisely, Shipp tries to avoid playing in a cluttered fashion, sculpting arching, nicely swinging lines, later interspersed with double-time runs and licks. Halfway through, however, Shipp becomes ever more daring in his improvisations. At 4:51, Bisio plays a wonderful and swinging bass solo with a rich, powerful tone.

Virgin Psych Space 1 is a drum solo; Part 2 is a free-form piece which opens with Shipp’s piano, exploring atonal and extended chords as the bass and drums play around him. With Regeneration we again return to somewhat more conventional rhythms and a very attractive, minor-key melody played by Shipp over a sort of calypso beat. This, however, becomes a bit more complex as it moves along, with Shipp later playing a combination of chords with single-note passages.

The finale, New Heaven and New Earth, opens with a distorted bass solo by Bisio, after which Shipp plays what sounds like almost random atonal lines, single-note style, on the keyboard. Then he moves into tonal chords (at least briefly) while the bass plays frantically around him. Eventually the music moves into the kind of fast-paced free jazz for which Shipp is known, only to then fall back into soft chords at half the tempo while the bass plays around him before ramping up the tempo yet again. At the 8:50 mark, Bisio again plays a distorted solo, this time bowed in the bass’s highest range. It’s a fascinating piece.

This is a tremendously interesting and diverse album for Shipp, highly recommended for free jazz fans.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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The Messy Life & Career of Bunny Berigan

Mr. Trumpet cover

MR. TRUMPET: THE TRIALS, TRIBULATIONS AND TRIUMPH OF BUNNY BERIGAN / By Michael P. Zirpolo / Scarecrow Press, Studies in Jazz No. 64 ($132 hardback, $49 paperback, available for order HERE)

Michael Zirpolo, the author of this book, was kind enough to send me a copy after reading my appreciation of the Bunny Berigan Orchestra. I had expressed interest because I couldn’t figure out why it took so long for such an obviously talented musical genius to hit the big time and, even more puzzling to me, why he wasted so much of his valuable energy recording a lot of pop music junk in stock arrangements, taking “straight” solos without any jazz content.

Well, I sure found out! But before I get into the details, let me say up front that Zirpolo is not the devil in them, only the messenger, and he did some pretty heavy lifting in preparing this book, particularly in sorting through the voluminous materials on Berigan collected and sorted by one Cedric “Bozy” White over a half-century. This was, as in the case of Phil Evans’ roomful of files on Bix Beiderbecke that had to be sorted out and edited by Richard Sudhalter, a collection of everything plus the kitchen sink, which meant that Zirpolo had to double-check to decide what was correct and what was hearsay or simply unverified. After White’s death, these materials were further edited by Perry Huntoon and Ed Polic in preparation for a Berigan bio-discography, but as of this writing I could not find such a book yet being published. Another source for Zirpolo was Robert Dupuis’ biography, Bunny Berigan—Elusive Legend of Jazz (Louisiana State University Press, 2005). It is to Zirpolo’s great credit that he somehow made a coherent, readable and not too contradictory narrative out of all these materials, some of which conflicted with each other. The book reads well. That’s not the problem. The problem was Bunny.

Let me put it this way: Roland “Bunny” Berigan had one heck of a messy life after he came to New York, a messy marriage, and a VERY messy career. In fact, despite the fact that his professional duties paid him extremely well during the height of the Depression and also made him well known among the musical fraternity prior to 1935, he so overwhelmed himself with a daily grind that often encompassed 12-hour days and played so much pap that he would rather not have done that it was what started him on the path to becoming an alcoholic. He apparently didn’t really start drinking until about 1931, but by the end of 1934 he was, as Zirpolo describes it, a “functioning alcoholic” who once showed up so loaded for one of Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance radio programs that he fell off the riser for the trumpet section and had to be replaced mid-broadcast.

Moreover, his personal life was also a mess, again mostly of his own making. Wanting to duplicate the happy home life he had enjoyed in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, he married not a level-headed woman who could have provided him a stable home life but a 19-year-old vaudeville dancer whose head was apparently stuffed with sawdust. She saw marriage to the handsome, talented and affluent Berigan as a potential bundle of laughs. She had no housekeeping, budgetary or parenting skills, and by 1934 she simply took to joining Bunny in getting loaded whenever he was home . They were a rollicking, carefree couple who pissed away thousands of dollars that should have been reinvested in Bunny’s career, hiring an agent who could have lined him up more fulfilling and less exhausting work, and put his name before the public in the few really hot bands that existed at the time, primarily the Casa Loma Orchestra. True, like all “dance bands” the Casa Lomans had to play its quotient of sweet tunes along with the hot, but just listen to their arrangements from that period: all of them tasteful and many of them tremendously complex and exciting jazz. By 1933, as Zirpolo points out in this book, the Casa Loma Orchestra had lined up a lucrative radio wire that paid them top dollar during the Depression. Bunny would surely have benefited from this exposure regardless of how many recording dates he shoved into his busy schedule, but instead he made the bad career decision to work for Paul Whiteman, who scarcely used his talents properly, from November 1932 to November 1933.

And believe me, Berigan did a LOT of recording, mostly for the American Record Corporation (ARC), which sold their records inexpensively in department stores, but also for the cheapo “Hit of the Week” and such major labels as Brunswick, Columbia and Victor, the former with his drinking buddies the Dorsey Brothers. This activity included several outstanding sides with the only real white jazz vocal group of the day, The Boswell Sisters, and in fact Berigan gave what I consider to be his first fully mature jazz solo on their February 24, 1932 recording of Everybody Loves My Baby (you can listen to it HERE, Track 25). He first met Tommy Dorsey at Jimmy Plunkett’s speakeasy in 1930, became a good friend, and even after he became the “first call” trumpeter for every musical assignment under the sun, particularly at CBS radio where he practically played from noon to midnight every day, he was the Dorsey Brothers’ favorite trumpeter.

Yet another dumb career decision Berigan made: in 1934 he refused Tommy’s offer to be part of the full-time, road-traveling Dorsey Brothers’ Orchestra which, again, played a much higher quotient of jazz than the average pop band. He turned down the chance to become nationally known under a leader who was a genius at promotion in order to record garbage music with Fred Rich, Freddy Martin and others.

Why? Zirpolo explains it, I think, exquisitely well on p. 37:

For the most part, Berigan took these new challenges in stride. His pleasant, easygoing personality allowed him to bend, not break, under the new stresses…But Berigan had insecurities as well. The tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman noted that “Bunny wanted everybody to love him. He was terribly insecure.” When Bunny joined CBS, he did not know if his playing would receive the praise and approval it had always received, and this bothered him.

Substantial self-confidence is not the same as unlimited self-confidence. The great virtuoso bandleaders who eventually came to fame in the swing era, most notably Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw, seemed to possess unlimited self-confidence. They each had, in addition, a colossal ego. They pleased and offended people with little regard for what others thought of them. They each withstood the pressures, problems, and successes of simultaneously being a virtuoso instrumentalist and a bandleader, in their own ways, but self-doubt was simply not present in any of their personalities. Bunny Berigan did not have unlimited self-confidence, nor did he have a giant-sized ego. Instead of reaching within himself and tapping some inner reserve of emotional strength when confronted by major challenges, Bunny began to reach for alcohol to soothe his nerves and bolster his self-confidence. At about the time Bunny joined CBS, Plunketts became, increasingly, not just a place to relax after work, but a place to go at all hours to obtain the liquid courage he thought he needed to play well, and get through whatever situation he found himself in.

Sad but true…and for some reason, not even seeing one of his idols, Bix Beiderbecke, passed out in Plunkett’s after a two-hour morning recording session, or worse yet, seeing and hearing him in a completely debilitated state in the spring of 1931 when both men played on the same remote dance band gig, seemed to make any impression.

Compare this to the career trajectory of Berigan’s primary trumpet idol, Louis Armstrong. Louis may have had more of unlimited self-confidence than Bunny, but he was a poor, under-educated black man from New Orleans who, as he often put it, “don’t speak any language but English and that one not too well.” The difference was that he married a woman who was not only a well-trained musician but also a highly intelligent and very well-educated one, Lil Hardin, and Hardin knew how to both manage a home budget and promote her extraordinarily talented husband. It was she who encouraged him to quit King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band near the end of 1924 to join Fletcher Henderson’s pioneer big jazz orchestra in New York, and despite his “hayseed” ways (Louis wore short trousers that exposed his red long underwear, and brought a bucketful of red beans and rice onto the bandstand every night to eat for his supper) he made a deep impression on his more sophisticated bandmates. Then, it was Lil who told him to go back to Chicago where she was able to set him up in some of the best hot jazz orchestras in the city such as Carroll Dickerson’s Savoyagers (which Louis eventually took over), lined up the OKeh recording contract that produced his legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven discs, and thus made him a  big name in the “second city.” True, it was Armstrong himself who accepted Joe Glaser’s offer to manage him, and it was Glaser who made him an international star in a very short period of time, but throughout all this period Armstrong never did more than a little social drinking. He was never an alcoholic, kept his eye on the ball, and carved out one of the greatest careers in jazz playing (for the most part) what he liked along the way.

Although Joe Glasers didn’t grow on trees, there were still things Bunny could have done, like seek out Willard Alexander, the most jazz-hip of the big booking agency employees, to help promote his career—and manage his drinking. Yet Bunny continued to make poor career choices in those early years, over and over again. He used to drop in to the Onyx Club, one of the three biggest and most popular jazz clubs in New York (along with the Famous Door and  the Hickory House), after hours to jam with the other guys—and not get paid for it. If he had only been able to persuade one of the owners of these establishments to give him his own band, he’d probably have landed a continuous recording contract as Wingy Manone did at the Hickory House, followed in turn by clarinetist Joe Marsala. There were just a lot of options open to him, yet he constantly made the wrong decision, like playing with with Whiteman. That was practically a lost year for Berigan, bringing him nothing but a chance to visit his family back in Fox Lake when the Whiteman band played a week or two in their neck of the woods.

In Berigan’s case, lack of unlimited self-confidence led to his making bad decisions, those bad decisions led to more frustrations, and more frustrations led to his drinking heavier and heavier. By 1935 he had become so unreliable that only those bandleaders who felt that they needed a sparkplug like him in their bands, Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, were willing to take a chance on him, and he didn’t last long in either orchestra despite recording brilliant solos with both that are now considered jazz classics. Most people don’t realize that Bunny’s first Goodman discs, the ones that made his name (King Porter Stomp, Blue Skies, Jingle Bells, Get Rhythm in Your Feet), only had him as a guest in the studio. He wasn’t a regular member of the band until July, when he made the trip out West that culminated in the Palomar Ballroom gig in late August—and instead of staying and reaping the benefits of being with the then-hottest band in the land, he left again to return to the daily grind of CBS radio work, adding to it full-time work at the Famous Door with a small band and what seemed like four times as many studio recordings as in previous years during 1936.

But this time, Bunny almost inadvertently lucked out. CBS radio, wanting to cash in on what they perceived as the “swing craze,” gave him regular broadcasts with his own small group, Bunny Berigan and his Boys and, later in the year, featured him prominently on a show called the Saturday Night Swing Club. And miraculously, it was during this year that Berigan actually went on the wagon for a couple of months. Why? Because he was finally trying to set up his own permanent, full-time orchestra under his own name, and Rockwell-O’Keefe wasn’t interested in booking a bandleader with a reputation for showing up drunk on the job and sometimes playing so sloppily that it damaged his performing ability. While putting together his band, Berigan played for two months as “guest hot soloist” with Tommy Dorsey on broadcasts and recordings, during which time he recorded two masterpieces in one day, Marie and Song of India.

But then, more mess came into Bunny’s life in the form of a torrid love affair with singer Lee Wiley. She wasn’t the marrying kind and Bunny knew it, she was more of a femme fatale (in fact, she had just cut off a long love affair with bandleader Victor Young), but he was still drawn to her like a moth to a flame—and he clearly didn’t need this kind of complication on top of all his other problems.

So then, after all these years of hard work, endless gigs, and tons of recordings, the Bunny Berigan Orchestra was finally formed…and it stunk. Why? Because Bunny, always wanting to please people and be liked, had hired a group of young musicians who were pretty good individually but had absolutely no experience playing in sections. Besides Berigan himself, the only other pro in the orchestra was clarinetist Matty Matlock, an old friend on loan from the Bob Crosby band. At their first recording session, they spent two hours rehearsing a song that turned out to be the wrong song with the same title, so Bunny had to run out ahd buy a stock arrangement of the right song, touch it up and reharse it. At opening night of their two-week stay at the prestigious Meadowbrook, they were so awful that even well-wishers and friends of Bunny’s were embarrassed for him, and them. By the time the engagement ended they had nowhere to go because nobody wanted them. Back to the drawing board! Audition, replace, rehearse! But to his credit, Bunny finally got it right by March—thanks, in part, to the dissolution of Artie Shaw’s first band and a few musicians with Tommy Dorsey who were sick of his tantrums. As confirmed by Berigan’s early band singer Carol McKay,

Bunny was very definite about what he wanted soundwise. He and Joe Lippman worked closely together on most numbers and got along well. Bunny would make quite a few suggestions about how the brass was to be written for.

Here’s an interesting fact: the book spends 150 pages covering Berigan’s entire life and professional history from the time of his birth to February 1937, when Bunny was 28, in 150 pages, whereas the rest of the book covering just the last six years of his life runs 347 pages (not counting the Appendices). Of course, Zirpolo does a lot more in those 347 pages than just to cover Berigan’s own playing and personal life. He uses them to discuss the business end of the band business, how the musicians were controlled by their agencies, bookers, sing pluggers and unions in terms of repertoire, particularly in what they were told to record. For someone like Berigan, who just wanted to make music and be loved and leave the business end of it to someone else, this again didn’t work out too well. As I said earlier, he really needed a “personal manager” act as a liaison between the musicians and The Machine for him. He wasn’t the kind of person, as Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller were, to check up on things and make sure everything was running smoothly. Benny Goodman had John Hammond running tackle for him, as he later did for a few years for Count Basie, and Duke Ellington ran his own show, but Bunny had the business acumen of a Millennial living at home with his or her parents. He wasn’t a babe in the woods, he was a babe in a vicious jungle, and to some extent it amazed me that all those years of working in studios, for networks, for Whiteman etc. hadn’t taught him a single thing except how much liquor he could sneak onto the bandstand while he was playing a gig.

And yet, somehow, Berigan adapted. I won’t go into all of the details that he ran into while running his band—it’s better for the reader to have some surprises in store—but as a woman I was surprised and delighted to read that Bunny didn’t like the idea of his female band singers sitting on the stage when not singing. He felt that it “cheapened the singer (according to McKay) and took away the element of surprise.” Bunny also personally discouraged audience members talking to the “girl singer” during a gig, “trying to get a dance or a date.” Another mixed blessing was in Berigan landing a recording contract with Victor Records, which he and others considered to be “the Cadillac of record companies.” The problem was that his management, Rockwell-O’Keefe, which had done well by him so far and gave him personal attention, had most of their bands tied up with Decca. Berigan’s band was picked up by MCA, in their own way the “Cadillac” of booking agents, but they gave him far less personal attention, which he needed. But this was not entirely due to the RCA contract; Bunny’s good friend Tommy Dorsey was also with MCA, his recording of Marie/Song of India with Bunny’s solos on it was selling like hotcakes, and TD always had a finger in the pie of every business decision. He probably somehow wangled a cut for himself by getting the “hottest trumpeter in the business” over to MCA.

Del Sharbutt, the announcer for one of Berigan’s radio broadcasts, put it succinctly:

Bunny was a hell of a musician, like a very talented child, but he wasn’t a strong bandleader, not really cut out for it. His drinking was starting to get really bad—not that he was drunk on the job—he just had to have it to function at all. The sign of a true alcoholic I guess.

But when it came to the musical side of the band, Berigan knew what he was doing. He eventually got the kind of well-written, highly-swinging arrangements he wanted as well as the jazz soloists he liked best, including clarinetist Joe Dixon, tenor saxist Georgie Auld and trombonist Sonny Lee. As Lee put it:

The band worked harder than any other band I was with, and Bunny worked harder than any other leader I ever knew, even when he was ill.

Pianist-arranger Joe Lippman also added the following:

Bunny was particular about musical detail like most good musicians…There was an awful lot of pride in those Berigan bands. Like most of the groups of that day, we wanted to be better than anybody.

And Bunny wanted to be loved—not just by his musicians, but by the audiences he played for. He absolutely glowed when they showed him appreciation. Yet he never understood that all of those horrible records his band made of third-rate songs forced on him by the song-pluggers were damaging his reputation. Ah, he’s say with a wave of his hand, we’ll just wow ‘em in person. At least the recording dates are paying us good money, which we need. It never seemed to dawn on him that all of those awful songs were actually damaging his “brand.”

I’m not really trying to make this review sound cynical; after all, I do adore Berigan’s playing and always will; but really, going over his shortcomings wasn’t just frustrating, it was maddening. Put any other name into the above narrative you’d like, let’s say someone who was a good musician but not a genius, and I think you’ll understand how I feel. The fact that all of this happened to a truly GREAT musician whose music still moves people nearly 80 years after his death just makes it doubly frustrating. You either feel like tearing you hair out or reaching back in time and tearing Bunny’s hair out. It’s that weird of a story. He succeeded professionally at what he did, which was to play the trumpet better than any other white musician of his day, but otherwise just kept falling into open manholes that he himself took the covers off of.

Like the Lee Wiley affair, which came back to bite him when his wife Donna—by now also a confirmed alcoholic—found out about it and confronted him. Bunny stupidly told her that he’d take Lee over her. Eventually, Donna began physically abusing his daughters, which was something Bunny could not tolerate; he rushed home to defend them, then had his parents come out from Wisconsin to tend to them because he couldn’t trust his wife. (Band musicians who met her all said, in later years, that even before this she was a terrible mother and housekeeper. She thought life with Bunny was all going to be amusement park rides, circuses, rainbows and Unicorns, and had no idea how to be a wife and mother.)

Berigan’s professional career began a slow but steady descent towards the end of 1938 and into 1939. Part of it was because his reputation as an unreliable alcoholic preceded him everywhere he went, but there were two incidents—one his fault and one the fault of his personal manager at MCA, Arthur Michaud—that did him in. The first was when, coming on stage sloppy drunk, he fell into the orchestra pit and couldn’t get out for several minutes when the band had to play without him. That one was on him; it made the rounds in the press; and it cost him gigs. The second was when MCA booked him into a theater in BRISTOL, Connecticut, but Michaud mistakenly told him it was BRIDGEPORT, Connecticut. Berigan went where he was told to go, actually set up early, but then saw the fairly new Gene Krupa band come in and set up and learned the truth. By the time he and his band made it from Bridgeport to Bristol, the theater had closed for the night and he was sued for breath of contract. Yet although this wasn’t his fault, he compounded the error by just sucking it up instead of hiring a lawyer and suing Michaud and MCA for giving him the wrong information.

As a sequel to this mess, Berigan rightly fired Michaud as his personal manager but wrongly refused to hire a new one. This threw him at the mercy of MCA, which now simply booked him on endless, costly, zig-zagging road tours which made him lose money rather than making it. His band fell apart when Artie Shaw began hiring some of his best sidemen away from him, including star drummer Buddy Rich. Berigan rebuilt his band with mostly unknowns who actually played extremely well, and by the spring of 1939 he had a great band again…but being relegated to the road and having very few radio broadcasts, no one knew about it. Prior to his firing, Michaud had kept promising Bunny that his band was going to be signed to a major radio program, probably Bob Hope’s, or at least featured in a major motion picture, but neither ever happened. Zirpolo places the blame squarely on Michaud for this, but to be honest, Bunny’s reputation as an unreliable boozer probably had a lot to do with his not getting these prize jobs.

So down the rabbit-hole he went, taking great pride in the musical discipline and performances of his band but slowly losing money as if it were seeping down the middle of an hourglass. And yet, his musicians stayed with him and other, more famous musicians continued to admire him, mostly due to his incredible talent but also because he was basically a very lovable person. Bunny smiled, schmoozed and drank himself into debt, all the while still performing at a peak level.

Of course, there were musical reasons why Berigan’s big band never quite hit the heights. As I mentioned in my previous article, Bunny as a rule didn’t like riff tunes; he preferred the older jazz compositions because he liked their form and structure, so his band played a lot of them, but unfortunately for him, riff tunes were where it was at and the old stuff was considered corny by young jitterbuggers. Secondly, at least half of his book seemed to consist of stock arrangements, particularly the pop tunes and ballads, whereas the other half consisted of specialty arrangements by Joe Lippman (and Abe Osser), later Ray Conniff and others, with a wide diversity of orchestral styles and voicings, and this did not help him establish an identifiable band “sound” except for his own trumpet. Artie Shaw very cleverly let Jerry Gray and himself write his band’s book in a consistent style that the public could get used to. And thirdly, although Bunny rightly thought very little of whatever singers were singing the pop stuff, having a revolving door of female singers hurt him in establishing an identity. Goodman was very fortunate in his series of female singers, going from Helen Ward to Martha Tilton, then to Mildred Bailey for a couple of months, then Helen Forrest and eventually Peggy Lee, over a course of six years. Berigan, by contrast, went through female band singers as if they were Kleenex: Carol McKay, Sue Mitchell, Ruth Bradley, Gail Reese (an improvement on the preceding but not great, and all of these just in 1937), Ruth Gaylor, Jayne Dover, and then Kathleen “Kitty” Lane (his best singer, courtesy of Glenn Miller who decided to go with Marion Hutton instead). Musicians didn’t care but, since live performances and broadcasts of even the hottest bands had to include at least four dorky pop tunes per set, the public did. Without a specific “band identity,” Berigan “confused” non-musical listeners too much. Yet he had a very large minority following among those swing fans who understood and appreciated what he could do on the trumpet, and they often followed him from gig to gig or at least came from far and wide when he played a major venue for a week or more, which is what gave him “record attendance” at such venues. Even in the context of the book, Zirpolo states that the Berigan band was marketed by MCA as “The Miracle Man of Swing,” putting the emphasis on him rather than the orchestra.

By 1939, Berigan’s decision to go without a personal manager began to cost him dearly. He was playing more one-nighters than ever, but even when he did have longer and more successful engagements in hotels and theaters, he and his band never seemed to get paid what was due. Bunny finally hired his father, whose only business experience had been selling candy as a traveling salesman and then later operating a small general store, as his personal manager, but the gate receipts kept mysteriously disappearing. To put it bluntly, MCA was playing a sophisticated game of “rolling the drunk,” and doing a good job of it, too. One week, when the band was in Chicago and the musicians hadn’t been paid in a few weeks, Berigan suggested that they go visit the Musicians’ Union President, James C. Petrillo. The error he made was in not also going himself to plead his case. Petrillo got the musicians their current and back pay out of MCA, but somehow felt that Berigan was complicit in this scheme, which he wasn’t…in fact, it was while in Chicago that he first filed for bankruptcy, repeating the action in New York where he was technically a resident. But that didn’t stop Petrillo from fining Berigan $1,000 for bad business practices instead of MCA, who probably told Petrillo that Bunny, and not they, were to blame. And so the merry-go-round went. More messiness in Berigan’s business and personal lives. Bunny’s drinking was by now not only affecting his relationships (he even got into screaming matches with Lee Wiley) and his playing on occasion, it was also affecting his mind, erasing whatever business sense he had learned in his early days.

It was also in 1939 that Berigan finally went to a doctor because he was feeling so awful and learned that he had cirrhosis. A death sentence in those days; the only question was how much longer you could extend your life by giving up the booze. The doctors recommended that as well as stopping playing the trumpet for an indefinite period of time, perhaps six months to a year. Bunny did neither. His compromise was to cut back on his drinking, which is kind of like pouring only a cupful of gasoline on a fire instead of a bucketful. The fire still burns and destroys. With his hands and legs badly swollen, Berigan had to take 18 days off from his band from Christmas Eve 1939 into 1940, during which time others led it (including a few famous guests such as trumpeter Wingy Manone and trombonist Jack Teagarden) and, when he returned, he was still in pain and walking quite unsteadily with a cane. His band musicians were frightened. Could this be the end?

To be fair to Berigan, let us step back and consider the free-boozing jazz scene of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, by which point many musicians had switched over from liquor and marijuana to heroin. There were a LOT of alcoholic jazz musicians during that period, both white and black, among them Manone, Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Pee Wee Russell and Wild Bill Davison, the last-named being someone who could have drunk W.C. Fields under a table—and none of them developed cirrhosis at such a young age. Even Duke Ellington could put away the sauce pretty well until he was 41, at which age he just stopped drinking. The famous alcoholic jazz musicians who died before age 40, Bix Beiderbecke, Bubber Miley, Dick McDonough and Fats Waller, did not die of cirrhosis. They died of pneumonia as a secondary condition that their weakened immune systems could not fight off. Thus Bunny had a right to be shocked by the diagnosis…except for one thing. As Zirpolo points out early in the book, his maternal grandfather, who was not a heavy drinker, died of “sclerosis of the liver,” a euphemism in those days for cirrhosis, in 1927 when he was only in his 50s. Thus it was an inherited condition that skipped a generation, and Bunny was the unfortunate child who got it. Even so, he should have done what Ellington did and just stopped drinking, but by this time his system was so used to it that he couldn’t handle simple day-to-day operations without alcohol.

Physically and emotionally unable to continue leading a band, MCA placed Berigan in the ranks of Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. Dorsey was himself going through a financial crisis, albeit one on a smaller scale than Bunny’s. Audiences had gotten tired of his servings of orchestrated Dixieland mixed with ballads by Jack Leonard and Edythe Wright, so he had to revamp. His first big steps were hiring drummer Buddy Rich when Artie Shaw abandoned his orchestra in November 1939 as well as hiring ace jazz arranger Sy Oliver away from Jimmie Lunceford. He also fired Leonard because he thought Jack was trying to negotiate a better deal with another band; his replacement was “that skinny kid with Harry James,” Frank Sinatra. After letting Wright go, he hired pert, petite Connie Haines, then added a pretty hip vocal quartet, the Pied Pipers, within whose ranks was the superb singer Jo Stafford, who he also used for solos. Axel Stordahl was hired to write the ballad arrangements for Sinatra, some of which included the Pied Pipers. With the emergence of Oliver as his preeminent jazz arranger, it made sense to plug Bunny Berigan into those charts (plus revivals of his 1937 hits, Marie and Song of India).

Berigan was with Dorsey from March 2 through mid-July 1940, at which time he was fired for being a hopeless drunk, yet he continued to come and go until early August. To sum up the Dorsey experience, Bunny was initially thrilled to have someone else calling the shots; Tommy convinced him to cut back or, better yet, completely stop his drinking (for a spell, anyway); and all seemed just rosy at first. But unfortunately, the soft, slow numbers with Sinatra took off like wildfire, as did Sinatra himself, and before long TD was playing three or four ballads in his live shows and broadcasts to every one hot number.

Berigan comparison

But Berigan wasn’t the only one who was displeased with this turn of events. Rich became so bored playing the ballads that he’d either not play at all, just move his hands over the drums as if he were playing, or drop in some out-of-place bombs and paradiddles just to break the monotony. Finally, Sinatra picked up a pitcher of cold water and ice cubes and threw it at Rich’s head. Buddy ducked and it hit the wall behind him. Not satisfied with that, Sinatra then hired some of his goon friends from Hoboken who beat Rich up. (Sinatra was particularly unpleasant towards Connie Haines, too, calling her a “dumb hick.”)

Bunny took it in stride at first but then started getting bored, and the more bored he got the more he drank. The more he drank, the worse his playing got. The Dorsey band landed a prime summer radio show replacing the Bob Hope Program. At that same time his wife Donna came to visit him; Bunny asked Dorsey’s band manager if he could take her out to dinner and have Tommy pick up the tab. The manager said sure. That evening, when Bunny stood up to take his solo on Marie, he fell off the bandstand as he had done with Benny Goodman in 1934. Tommy asked the band manager to show him Bunny’s dinner tab. He had ordered 12 scotch and sodas and a ham sandwich!

Of course I can’t psychoanalyze Berigan, but my educated guess is that he took the same philosophy that Bobby Darin did when he learned that heart disease ran in his family and that most of the males died young: just keep plugging away, do as much as you can while you’re still alive, and the hell with the consequences. This was, however, a very callous attitude towards his daughters, who he adored and who very much loved him back. For that, I cannot forgive him. And even if he had stopped drinking entirely, his liver was so shot already that he’d probably have only lived an extra five or six years beyond when he did.

Yet Zirpolo provides an important clue to what was really wrong with him. Berigan admitted to some of his Dorsey bandmates that the reason he was such a workaholic was that he felt he needed all that hard work in order to bring his trumpet-playing skills to the high level he had perfected. But the more he worked, the more stressed he got, so he took to drink to relieve the tension; and although he could “play drunk,” there were times when he simply couldn’t produce because he was so loaded, so he practiced more. Which made him more stressed. Which led to his drinking more. It was simply a vicious cycle that he couldn’t break, and to be honest, it’s doubtful that even if AA existed in those years that he could have controlled himself. Those who knew him best all said that they were pretty sure that Bunny never drank for pleasure; even in his worst years, he didn’t like being drunk, he just had to be in order to cope. If he completely stopped drinking he’d also have had to completely stop playing the trumpet at the same time, which his doctors wanted him to do, but what was he supposed to do for a living? He was what he was, an out-of-control workaholic-alcoholic. He knew no other life. Berigan didn’t just need AA, he needed a psychiatrist—and a good one.

The rest of Berigan’s story is, for the most part, just as sad and screwed up as the rest of it. After leaving Dorsey, he started another band of mostly unknowns and young kids which he molded into shape. As usual, they played well but, also as usual, Bunny didn’t keep track of the money and MCA rolled him again—he even skipped out on a hefty hotel bill and ended up in jail. After a brief hiatus he started one more band, his last, again with mostly young players; and by accident, hired as a personal manager—his first in years—he didn’t even know, Don Palmer. Much to Berigan’s surprise, Palmer turned out to be the best personal manager he had, keeping track of the money and not letting MCA roll him. But it was too little too late. After two years without a recording contract, he finally got one for the independent Elite label which turned out about seven sides between late 1941 and early 1942. It was Bunny’s last stand.

On May 31, Berigan began hemorrhaging blood and had to be rushed to the hospital. Unfortunately, he was too far gone and there was nothing the doctors could do. He died at 3:30 a.m. on June 2, 1942. His wife was not by his bedside. The priest and the doctors told her there was nothing she could do so she should go home. Instead of saying No. I’m his wife, I’m staying, she went home and heard about his death at 4 a.m. on the radio. But Tommy Dorsey was by his bedside when he died, and it was TD who either paid for Bunny’s hospital expenses and transportation of his body home to Fox Lake himself or helped raise the money to do so. He also started a trust fund for Donna and the two girls along with Benny Goodman and Fred Waring and, in a final gesture of generosity, put Bunny on his band’s payroll and sent the money every week to his wife and daughters. But this didn’t stop Donna from hating Tommy until the day she died because, having seen and heard what a terrible housewife and mother she was, he called her a whore and a disgrace to Bunny.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Berigan, like Armstrong, had a tremendous impact on trumpet players of his time, but after World War II a different style of jazz trumpet emerged: the high, blistering-fast bebop style of Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro (who combined the rich tone of Armstrong and Berigan with the speed and dexterity of Gillespie), Red Rodney and young Miles Davis. Bix Beiderbecke had influenced Red Nichols, Jimmy McPartland, Rex Stewart and Bobby Hackett who played in the ‘30s, but his biggest influence was post-bop in the playing of Chet Baker and the new, “cool school” Miles Davis. Yet everyone who came in contact with Berigan on records was impressed because he could actually do more with his instrument than almost anyone else in his time. In 1944 RCA Victor, who hadn’t bothered to record Berigan’s great 1939 band at its peak in May and June of that year and refused to offer him a new contract after his last records for them in September, saw a chance to make a buck on him and so issued the Bunny Berigan Memorial Album (Victor P-134), four 10-inch 78s that included an abridged version of his recording of “I Can’t Get Started” along with “Frankie and Johnny,” “Trees,” “Russian Lullaby,” “Jelly-Roll Blues,” “Black Bottom,” “’Deed I Do” and “High Society.” In 1959 they finally issued an LP of Bunny’s band which included five of these same eight performances (real imaginative, guys!) except that now they used the full version of “Started.”

Berigan memorial album

The book is exceptionally well detailed, in fact a bit too much. Several pages’ worth of the latter part of the book consist of precisely detailed info on dates, locations, times, additional performers and radio hookups of the Berigan band’s itinerary, along with listings of which musicians played on what dates—valuable to the researcher, I’m sure, but as a reader I wished this info had been put in an appendix at the back of the book. Perhaps to save time, and because it has been published elsewhere, a detailed discography is not included, but Zirpolo does list the songs played in both Berigan’s broadcasts and on the Thesaurus transcription discs. There are several typos here and there, most not very damaging except for the misspellings of Paul Whiteman reedman Charles Strickfadden’s last name is misspelled Strickfadded. Otherwise, very neatly done. Zirpolo also omits detailed descriptions of most of Bunny’s solos except for a few occasions when he quotes the late Richard M. Sudhalter. In a way, I understand this; unlike a lot of jazz musicians, Berigan’s solos were full of added and subtracted vibrato, lip slurs, growls and other jazz devices which are difficult to notate, but at least three or four of his best solos of the period (I would say Jelly Roll Blues, ‘Tain’t So Honey ‘Tain’t So, Devil’s Holiday and Tuxedo Junction, his I Can’t Get Started coda having already been transcribed by Gunther Schuller in his book The Swing Era) might have given a visual illustration of the man’s brilliance as an improviser.

Still, this is an excellent bio which dispels many rumors about Bunny Berigan, and is highly recommended to those who love his playing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Josh Sinton’s Ceremonial Music

15003_4PAN_DGP

cérémonie/musique / SINTON-NEUFELD-MEREGA: La Politique des Auteurs. Algernon. Change of Scene. Sleepwalk Digest. Untethered. Netherland. Music From a Locker Room / What Happens in a Year: Josh Sinton, bar-sax/bs-cl; Todd Neufeld, el-gt; Giacomo Meraga, el-bs / FiP Recordings (no number)

Baritone saxist and bass clarinetist Josh Sinton presents here his trio which is called What Happens in a Year, so that’s not the name of the CD, just the group. But this is not your conventional jazz trio. As bassist Giacomo Merenga puts it:

I hear the freedom of making a chamber sound-object, something that breathes well in a small, closed space. More than a sculpture, I’m thinking of those early twentieth-century paintings that incorporate three-dimensional collages. Images that look naïve exactly because of their freedom, but they occupy their space so perfectly.

The music is exceptionally strange: slow and spacey, but far from soft, easy-listening jazz. Rather, it sounds like an avant-garde version of early Miles Davis, with slow, spaced-out notes, here played by Sinton over the bitonal underlay of an electric guitar and bass, neither of which are trying to break the sound barrier. It’s music that draws you inward; even when the tempo increases sand the playing becomes a bit edgier, it is the ambience created and not necessarily the notes played that grab you.

Because of the focus on ambience and mood, the titles given here really mean nothing to the listener. They probably mean something to the trio which composed them, but all you really need to focus on is the concentration on sound. In Algernon, the second piece given here, there is so little “actual music” that one wonders what their goal was, but again, if you just let yourself go and let it wash over you, it creates a spell that is hard to break. The closest I can come to describing it is the kind of music that NPR plays on its Echoes program. Weird, yet attractive in its own strange way.

With the music comprised of such relatively small, basic gestures, it is difficult to describe. My estimate is that all of it was improvised into being, with the trio members tossing out what they had to offer as things moved along. Thus these are not compositions in the strict sense of the word, but by generally moving slowly and not rushing things, Sinton and his trio were able to explore a different realm of music. All of it is harmonically unsettled, yet all of it is somehow peaceful. The best I can do to describe it is the say that it’s the opposite of musique concrete; it’s more like a fluid, phosphorescent blob that moves slowly, and occasionally quickly, across your basement floor. You have no idea what it is or where it comes from, but it seems essentially harmless despite some angular flashes of light within it.

My sole complaint of this album is that, as it goes on, the music becomes progressively slower and simpler until, by the time you reach Untethered, it almost does sound like ambient jazz. Of course, if your tolerance for this sort of thing is higher than mine, you’ll certainly enjoy the whole thing.

Well worth hearing, however. This is some pretty freaky stuff! The CD is scheduled for release on October 9.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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Michael O’Neill Plays Original Compositions

And Then it Rained

AND THEN IT RAINED / O’NEILL: Port of Spain. Emerging Impressions. Early Spring. One for Kenny. Cloudscape. And Then it Rained. Mavericks Samba. Song for Mama Bear. Four Cornered Circle. Suite Iris. The Dreams We Left Behind / Michael O’Neill, t-sax/cl/a-sax/s-sax; Michael Bluestein, pno; Dan Feiszli, bs; Jason Lewis, dm / Jazzmo Records JR005

Reedman Michael O’Neill has had an interesting background. After studying clarinet at a young age, his parents nudged him to focus on his interest in science. Thus, after a stint as clarinetist with the Air Force Band, he entered college as a biology major with a music minor, studying composition, arranging and jazz performance. But you could tell where his heart was. He played jazz in clubs in the evenings. Note that he didn’t do biological experiments in clubs in the evenings!

Even so, after graduating college he pursued a Ph.D. in, of all things, Insect Physiology (in the science field, somewhat analogous to basket weaving in the arts) but still played around town when he wasn’t in classes. After two years of Insect Physiology, he had had enough. He moved to the San Francisco area and studied saxophone with Joe Henderson while still playing gigs.

This is his fifth CD, but the first to be purely instrumental (the others all feature singers) and the first to highlight his own compositions. The opener, Port of Spain, is a catchy but not particularly innovative piece, built around a repeated motif played on the soprano sax with a bridge in the middle of the chorus, before slowing down into a moodier, more lyrical melody. No offense meant, but O’Neill’s high range on the soprano struck my ears as a little shrill, but then, I’ve been spoiled by Sidney Bechet, Johnny Hodges, Steve Lacy and Eric Dolphy. After the tempo picks up again, pianist Bluestein plays a terrific solo, not just fluent and “busy” but bursting with ideas and beautifully structured. Drummer Jason Lewis is an excellent percussionist; he knows exactly what he wants and how best to propel the music without sounding over-busy or getting in the way.

In Emerging Impressionism, it is the piano and bass that open the track, with bassist Feiszli playing the opening melody. O’Neill enters on tenor sax and changes that melody around. This piece struck me as pleasant but pretty ordinary; nothing really makes it stand out as a composition, but O’Neill’s improvisation on his original theme is wonderfully flowing and his tenor tone is splendid.

By the time I reached Early Spring (played on the clarinet, and beautifully so) I came to realize that O’Neill learned how to compose in a very traditional manner and has apparently stuck with it. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with these tunes, but to call them “dynamic” is going a bit too far. The jazz compositions of Jungsu Choi, Enrique Haneine and Silke Eberhard are dynamic, and innovative. Nonetheless, as I say, these pieces are very nice in their own way, and the solos on them, particularly those of O’Neill and Bluestein, are superb in every way. I was especially impressed by the leader’s playing on One for Kenny, an uptempo piece with changing rhythms in the background. Cloudscape, also played on tenor, is a nice, medium-tempo piece with a slight allusion to the bossa nova beat, and sounds like something that Stan Getz would have recorded back in the early 1960s.

Much the same is to be heard in the pieces that follow: good if unexceptional tune construction, excellent bass and drum support, and outstanding solos from O’Neill and Bluestein. For those reasons alone, this is an excellent album and one worth seeking out. I, for one, am very glad that O’Neill has given us a purely instrumental CD because his talent deserved it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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