Friday, March 31, 2017

L'il Queenie and the Percolators - My Darlin' New Orleans

What's the best New Orleans single of all time?

"Big Chief" by Professor Longhair?

"Fire on the Bayou" by The Meters?

"Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups?  

"The Fat Man" by Fats Domino?

I hope I  won't be considered too much of a heretic if I say that I think the greatest New Orleans single is not one of those iconic records, but one by a relatively obscure artist: "My Darlin' New Orleans" by L'il Queenie and the Percolators. I'm basing this in part on my inevitable response when I spin this record; I can never play it just once. My usual pattern is to play "My Darlin' New Orleans" twice, flip the record over, play "Wild Natives," then flip again and play "My Darlin' New Orleans" once more. 

What makes this record so great? Well, the song itself is pretty good. Written by Cyrille Neville, guitarist Ramsey McLean, and R. Cuccia (I don't know who that is, to be honest), it's melodic and catchy, with lyrics that celebrate the city while also not overlooking the negative side of that complex place. But it's the performance that makes this a special record. It opens with a tough second-line drum groove by Kenneth Blevins. The presence of veteran tenor saxophonist Fred Kemp and Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist Charles Joseph give the side more than a touch of brass band flavor. But of course, the vocals of Leigh Harris, aka L'il Queenie, really make the record. Harris' singing is simultaneously strong and girlish, and she sounds totally in love with her city. My favorite moment comes during her litany of New Orleans pleasures, when she pronounces "oyster kiss" something like "esrter kiss."

"My Darlin' New Orleans" was originally released in 1981 on Thang Records. My copy is the second issue, on the Great Southern label - and thankfully, they retained the original sleeve art. The record was a local favorite, but gained a boost outside of New Orleans when it was featured in the HBO series Treme

I heard L'il Queenie, accompanied only by Josh Paxton's piano, in a small Uptown bar in the middle of the 1990s. She sang mostly standards and jazz tunes - I remember Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Hurricane Katrina left her depressed and homeless, and after some wandering, she ended up in North Carlolina. At the time I'm writing, Leigh Harris is, sadly, very ill and undergoing cancer treatments in Wake Forest. Listen to the best New Orleans single ever and send her good thoughts.


Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Charlie Parker - Yardbird in Lotus Land

Charlie Parker - one of my earliest jazz heroes, and arguably the most sophisticated improviser in jazz history. I have almost everything he ever recorded on my shelves: all the studio recordings, all the legitimately-issued live recordings, and most of the bootlegs. However, most of all that is on CD; I only have a few of Bird's LPs left. This British LP seems like a random collection of late 1945-early 1946 live recordings from Parker's stay on the West Coast. But really, this is as fine a 50 minutes of Bird as any on records.

Spotlite earned the gratitude of every jazz fan in the 1970s, when they issued Charlie Parker's Dial label recordings complete and in chronological order on six LPs. Before that, these important recordings were scattered - issued in haphazard fashion on a variety of labels, legitimate and otherwise. Spotlite didn't stop with with the Dials; they issued many live Parker recordings in the best possible sound. The albums were hard to find in the U.S., but the hipper record stores carried them, and they could always be special ordered.

The sound on Yardbird in Lotus Land is pretty good, for the most part. Most of side one is professionally recorded, from AFRS (Armed Forces Radio Service) broadcasts by the Dizzy Gillespie group featuring Parker and by an all-star alto saxophone lineup, with Benny Carter and Willie Smith. Two short tracks are of the rough bootleg quality serious Parker collectors are used to. Side two is an amazing live set from the short-lived Finale Club in Los Angeles, with young Miles Davis on trumpet and the legendary Joe Albany, a somewhat shadowy figure, on piano. Albany was a gifted, very individual jazzman, who barely recorded until his comeback in the 1970s. The Finale session is valuable for Parker's presence, of course, but even more so for a rare glimpse of Joe Albany.

Here's the AFRS all-star alto sax summit, with the Nat Cole Trio and Buddy Rich as the rhythm section. The stilted, scripted intro is funnier because it's so bungled. Ernie "Bubbles" Whitman is the M.C.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Eric Quincy Tate - Drinking Man's Friend

Eric Quincy Tate may not have been the best Southern rock band of the 1970s, but they had one of the best album covers. The band was built around the guitar and songwriting of Tommy Carlisle and the soulful singing of drummer Donnie McCormick. They never made much of an impact nationally, but they were popular in Georgia when I was a teenager. I spent the summer of 1974 in Macon, and EQT's sly version of John Mayall's "Brown Sugar" was one of my jukebox favorites. I'm glad to have a copy of their second (and probably best) album, Drinking Man's Friend, issued by Capricorn in 1972 - even if a previous owner did mark on the cover with brown ink. "Brown Sugar" opens the album.

In later years Donnie McCormick became a fixture at Atlanta's wonderful dive blues bar, The Northside Tavern. His death in 2009 was much lamented by the Atlanta blues community.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Arthur Blythe - Illusions (and R.I.P.)

Arthur Blythe's Facebook page reported that he died this morning, after having health problems for some time. The strength and energy his alto saxophone playing always had makes it hard for me to wrap my head around his long illness and death. I knew I had to spin one of his records tonight, and I thought about the rare Bush Baby, but in the end decided on Blythe's 1980 masterpiece, Illusions - not only perhaps Blythe's best, but one of the best jazz albums of that somewhat grim decade for the music.

In the 1960s and early 70s Blythe was part of the underground jazz scene in Los Angeles, playing with the legendary Horace Tapscott; Blythe's recording debut was on Tapscott's 1969 album The Giant is Awakened. Moving to New York in the mid 1970s, he became part of the underground, avant-garde scene there. But he didn't stay underground long. His music was edgy and forward-looking, but it was also hard-swinging and funky. Probably much to his surprise, he attracted the attention of Columbia Records, and signed a contract with them in 1978. His first Columbia album, Lenox Avenue Breakdown, came out the next year, and was a hit - in jazz terms, anyway. He made nine albums for Columbia over the next decade; Illusions was the third.

What makes this album so special? First, the intensity of Blythe's own playing - he's at the absolute top of his game here. Secondly, his two alternating accompanying bands are mighty impressive - they stay right there with him. Half of the six Blythe originals are played by his so-called "tuba band," with Bob Stewart on the eponymous instrument.  Abdul Wadud on cello, Bobby Battle on drums, and the idiosyncratic guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer (who was attracting lots of attention in the jazz world himself at the time) complete the band. The other ensemble is Blythe's "In the Tradition" band, a standard jazz quartet. But what a quartet! The mighty John Hicks is the pianist, Fred Hopkins is on bass, and Steve McCall is the drummer. Below are "Miss Nancy," by In the Tradition, and "Illusions," by the tuba band. R.I.P., Arthur Blythe, and thanks for the music.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Louis Armstrong - New Orleans Days

Nearly two months into this blog, and no Louis Armstrong yet. That ain't right. There's a paradoxical duality about Armstrong; he was a popular entertainer with hit records, but he was also a virtuoso trumpeter and improvisational genius - the first genius jazz produced, and one of the greatest musicians the music has ever known.

I heard Armstrong on the radio before I was ten. My parents regularly listened to the easy-listening station in Atlanta when driving, so I heard Louis' versions of "Cabaret," "Mack the Knife," and "Hello Dolly." To my ears, it was pleasant, but unexciting music, and as I got older and started reading about jazz, it became harder for me to reconcile those hit records with the descriptions of Armstrong-as-genius found in books about jazz. It all clicked for me when I heard Armstrong's 1928 recording of "West End Blues" on a record I checked out from the library. The brilliance of his playing was stunningly apparent on that track, and other early sides from that library album. After that, I began to hear Louis-as-entertainer differently; he elevated every song he performed, turning the mundane into art. Louis-as-genius and Louis-as entertainer were just two sides of the same coin.

New Orleans Days is a ten-inch LP from 1950, and it's the first long-playing record Armstrong recorded. To clarify: this is the first LP that was recorded with the long-playing format in mind; there were a few Armstrong LPs that were issued earlier, but they were collections of previously-recorded singles. When Louis took his band, the All Stars, into a New York studio on April 26 and 27, 1950, it was to record longer tracks specifically for LP release. This album was the first of the two LPs issued from those sessions.

After leading a big band for years, Armstrong formed the small group known as the All Stars in 1947, and led versions of that group for the rest of his life. Their performances got more formulaic as the years passed, but this is the earliest and best version of the band. (Or nearly so, Cozy Cole had replaced original drummer Big Sid Catlett a year or so earlier.) Trombonist Jack Teagarden and pianist Earl Hines were nearly on Armstrong's level as musicians, and clarinetist Barney Bigard and Arvell Shaw acquitted themselves well. Everybody is near the top of their game here. The tunes are all New Orleans standards - notable is "New Orleans Function," an amusing seven-minute recreation of a jazz funeral.

From a strictly musical standpoint, the old Crescent City standard "Panama" probably shows off the band's abilities better:


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Capt. John Handy - All Aboard

It used to be a truism that the saxophone is not an instrument that belongs in a traditional New Orleans jazz band. Sure, it's fine for R & B, or even in the city's brass bands, but in the small trad bands, the front line should be trumpet, trombone, and clarinet. Period.

Luckily, no one told Capt. John Handy that. An accomplished clarinetist, he took up the saxophone in the 1920s, when the instrument was as popular as the electric guitar would become four decades later. He got his nickname when, after correcting the banjo player's harmonies at a rehearsal, the offending musician sarcastically proclaimed, "All hail Captain John Handy, the chord master."

When the so-called "New Orleans revival" hit in the 1940s, Handy was overlooked by the earnest young men who came to the city to find and record whatever early jazzmen who were still active. Handy didn't record until the 1960s. But he recorded frequently in that last decade of his life, although most of the records were for small jazz labels, and most of his output has remained obscure. Some of his best records have never been reissued in digital form.

In December, 1965, the Connecticut Traditional Jazz Club brought four New Orleans veterans north for a series of concerts: trumpeter Kid Thomas Valentine, Jim Robinson on trombone, drummer Sammy Penn, and Handy with his alto sax. Three young New Englanders and a visiting British clarinetist, Sammy Rimmington, filled out the group, which came to be known as The December Band. Two of the concerts were recorded, and each of those concerts resulted in three full LPs. The December 3 concert in Stamford produced The December Band, Volumes 1 and 2 on Jazz Crusade and Sleepy Time Gal on Center. From a West Haven concert three days later, we have the three volumes of All Aboard on GHB.

The December Band has become legendary among traditional jazz fans, and when you hear the records, it's easy to understand why. The northern musicians are strictly functional; Rimmington is better, but was still not much more than a George Lewis imitator at this point. (He has gone on to a long and distinguished musical career.) But the New Orleans guys - whew! They are fiery and enthusiastic, and totally original - none of them sound remotely like anyone else.  Handy was always an aggressive and exciting saxophonist, and he's at his best here.

I bought All Aboard, Volume 1 when was around 16 - it was probably the first New Orleans revival record I owned. I loved Handy's playing right away, but Kid Thomas's odd sound and style turned me off at first. It wasn't until I discovered the work of avant-garde jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie that I could hear what Valentine was getting at. I love the interrelatedness of the different eras of jazz history; the music is a continuum, not a series of revolutions, as some jazz critics portray it.

Between those concerts, the band visited a television studio and recorded an hour-long broadcast. Rather than present any of the tracks from the All Aboard albums, I thought I'd add a clip from that show, starting with "Ice Cream," which was one of Capt. John's signature tunes.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Tony Bennett - It's So Peaceful in the Country

In an earlier post about a Marian McPartland record, I mentioned that Alec Wilder is one of my favorite composers. He's my absolute favorite composer of the so-called Great American Songbook - the body of sophisticated popular songs that dominated American pop music up to the time rock and roll took over. But Wilder also wrote music in the classical tradition, as well as much music that was unclassifiable, fusing elements of pop, jazz, and classical.

Even though Wilder was an accomplished classical composer, his best pop songs make a deeper impact emotionally that most of his classical pieces. The latter are very original and enjoyable, but tend toward the lighter side. His pop songs are imaginative and unusually constructed, but very natural-sounding at the same time. I was singing "It's So Peaceful in the Country" to myself this morning, and noticed how unusual some of the intervals are. But, somewhat paradoxically, it's not that difficult a song to sing.

I found this record years ago in a junk store in Lincoln, Nebraska. Someone had sold the store a large stack of 45s, many by Tony Bennett, and all in excellent condition. I thought to myself, "It would be great if I could find a record of Bennett singing an Alec Wilder song in this stack." And a few seconds later, there it was.

Bennett is now the elder statesman of the Great American Songbook, and for most of his career he has been one of the best interpreters of classic American songs. His style is straightforward and respectful to the songs; he avoids histrionics and over-the-top, forced emotionalism. Bennett's version of "It's So Peaceful in the Country" was recorded in 1957, but not released until two years later. It was only released as a single at the time; it didn't appear on an album until 1997, when it was included on the CD reissue of The Beat of My Heart. Bennett is accompanied by his longtime accompanist, pianist Ralph Sharon, leading a quartet including the great jazz drummer Chico Hamilton.

When I took a picture of this record, I thought is was worth leaving it in the original Columbia sleeve; I think it's pretty interesting. I haven't mentioned the flip side of the record, "Being True to One Another," because it frankly does nothing for me.

Old-guy vent: I know that for many younger people, YouTube is one of the main ways they listen to music. That makes me a little sad, because the sound on this video is compressed and inferior. I wish everybody could hear the original 45 RPM vinyl.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rev. Jasper Williams - I'm Black and I'm Proud

I don't know how many white atheists regularly listen to recorded sermons by black preachers, but I know at least one other person besides me who fits that description. African-American preachers made the church sermon performance art - the best preachers create an intense, emotional world which sucks the listener (or churchgoer) in, like a great actor or musician.

I also don't know why I'm proud of the fact that many of the best recording preachers were from Atlanta, but I kind of am. The great Rev. J.M. Gates recorded three-minute snippets of his sermons from the 1920s until the 40s. In the 1960s, Rev. Johnny "Hurricane" Jones and Rev. Jasper Williams (of Salem Baptist Church) put down many of their sermons on LP. Both Jones and Williams (and many other black preachers) used pop-culture references to get their point across. Rev. Williams based this sermon on both Luke, chapter 23, verse 26 and the James Brown song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." He weaves together the stories of Simon of Cyrene (an ancient city in north Africa), who carried the cross of Jesus, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other proud black men and women. The arc of this 32-minute sermon is amazing. He begins very calmly, and builds the intensity gradually, like a John Coltrane solo, until the 30-minute mark. Then he backs off and lets the audience/congregation breath again as he winds down. You can hear this remarkable performance here.

By the way, the odd white strip down the right side of the picture above is not the result of sloppy cropping. It's on my album, for whatever reason.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Anthony Braxton - Five Pieces 1975

Anthony Braxton is often thought of as a jazz saxophonist. That description doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what he does. He's a saxophonist (sopranino to contrabass), clarinetist (high E flat to contrabass), flutist, and pianist. He plays jazz, but not just jazz. He's a composer - of jazz, but not just jazz. He has written chamber music (often involving improvisation), operas, and a piece for four orchestra. His concepts have gotten more complex over the years, to the point where his musicians often interpolate material from other Braxton compositions when performing his music.

Five Pieces 1975 was the second release in his contract with Arista Records, who were having one of those brief flings with avant-garde jazz that major labels go through periodically. This is relatively early Braxton, and most of the music is identifiably jazz, albeit of a  pretty advanced variety. Braxton's quartet here was one of his great ensembles - Kenny Wheeler on trumpet and flugelhorn, Dave Holland on bass, and percussionist Barry Altschul. Braxton's music requires virtuoso musicians, and he has them here.

One of Braxton's quirks is that he titles his pieces not with words, but with formulas, symbols, drawings, and combinations of the above. At some point he realized that his method made verbal references to any particular piece difficult, so he started numbering them as well. Here's Composition 40M, which made a huge impression on me as a young man. Braxton's graphic title is to the right.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Les McCann Presents "Groove" Holmes

It happens. I've seen enough posts by other record collectors online to know that I'm not the only one. When your record collection reaches a certain size....

The other day I was thumbing through records on my shelves, and was kind of shocked and surprised to find this one: Les McCann Presents Richard "Groove" Holmes. I had no memory of buying it or ever playing it, but once I played it today, it triggered a vague memory of finding it at Wax 'n' Facts in Atlanta, playing it once, and putting on the shelf. It certainly deserved a better fate than being forgotten by me.

Pianist Les McCann was already something of a star (in jazz terms) when this album was made, with several popular albums on the Pacific Jazz  label. On tour in Pittsburgh, he heard organist Richard "Groove" Holmes, and told Richard Bock of Pacific Jazz about him. This, Holmes' first album (of what would become dozens), was the result.

It was unusual, but not unheard of, to have piano and organ featured together. There is no bass, since like most jazz organists, Holmes played the bass lines with his left hand and sometimes his feet on the pedals. The music is, for the most part, genial soul jazz, but the presence of one of the true jazz greats, Ben Webster, elevates the proceedings quite a bit. And I've always loved the playing of guitarist George Freeman, one of the three Chicago Freeman brothers. (Drummer Bruz and the amazing tenor saxophonist Von were the others.) Freeman's style is odd - sort of choppy and off-center - and very interesting and individual.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jimmy & Mama Yancey - Pure Blues

Jimmy Yancey, whose birth year is uncertain,  made his living, such as it was, as a groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox. But he was also a pianist, of the self-taught blues variety. He is one of my very favorite blues pianists - there's an eloquence to his work that I seldom hear elsewhere in the blues. Sadly, his Atlantic sessions from July, 1951 produced his last recordings; he died in September of that year.

Those recordings were first issued on LP on a couple of ten-inch LPs. This twelve-incher was issued in 1958. There are three piano solos here and four tracks on which Yancey is joined by bassist Israel Crosby. On side two, Yancey and Crosby are joined by Jimmy's wife, Estelle "Mama" Yancey, who sings the blues with a strong, steely voice. (My favorite line in her vocals is, "I can stand more trouble than any little woman my size.") Yancey's playing is beautiful and unhurried throughout, and full of the very personal bass lines he seemed to come up with effortlessly. One of the quirks of Yancey's playing was that, while he could play in a variety of keys, the only ending he knew was in E flat. So if he was playing in another key, the last two measures would have the feel of falling down an elevator shaft, musically. You can hear this in the Atlantic version of "How Long Blues," one of his signature tunes.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chu Berry and His Stompy Stevedores

Looking back on my posts so far, ,I see that I haven't posted any early jazz, or even any pre-war swing era jazz, since to me, "early jazz" implies music recorded before about 1935. This LP collects music recorded between 1936 and 1941, featuring the great, ill-fated tenor saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry. During the 1930s, Berry was considered by many to be second only to Coleman Hawkins in the pantheon of jazz tenor saxophonists, at least before Lester Young came on the scene. His style resembled Hawkins' somewhat, but his sound was lighter and his playing was more fluid, although he couldn't match Hawkins' harmonic sophistication.

Berry only recorded four sessions under his one name: two for Variety/Vocalion/Columbia (as the labels changed ownership) and two for Commodore, one of the earliest jazz specialty labels. The former two sessions are here on side one, and if they're not quite as good as the Commodores, they're very good indeed. Side two has one 1936 track of Berry with a Teddy Wilson small group; the rest of the side is by the Cab Calloway big band, of which Chu was a member from 1937 until his death in 1941. Berry's feature number with Calloway was the ballad "Ghost of a Chance"; the 1940 Calloway recording is included here, and it's a beautiful thing.

This reissue album, on the Columbia subsidiary label Epic, can't be said to be rare, but it took me years to find a true mono copy. Every copy I came across was fake stereo. For the uninitiated, many recordings from before the stereo era were issued on LP with an indication on the cover, "Reprocessed for stereo," or something like that. The mastering engineer would split the mono signal into two tracks, and roll off the bass on one side and roll off the treble on the other, to give an illusion of stereo depth. In practice, it usually sounded awful.

The liner notes, by guitarist and raconteur Danny Barker, who was Berry's bandmate in the Cab Calloway band, end with a description of Chu's death that is made even more chilling by its detached, straightforward tone:

The last time I saw Chu alive was getting into a car going to Canada from Ohio. He asked me if I wanted to ride with the group in the car instead of the big Greyhound bus. It was after a dance and I was tired and could stretch out on the bus - Chu and the group left before the bus - a half-hour later the bus stopped on the highway. There were many night red flares on the road - an accident. The bus emptied to see what had happened. There was the car. The front smashed in, and on the roadside Chu lay unconscious. The ambulance sped up. We followed to a small hospital in a small town. They laid Chu on a bed - and I heard the attendant say "We can't get a doctor until tomorrow morning, seven a.m." I looked at my wrist watch - it was three a.m. We boarded the bus and sped off to Toronto, Canada.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Miles Davis - The Little Blue Frog


In August, 1969, Miles Davis augmented his quintet with six or seven additional musicians (depending on the session) and went into Columbia's New York studio to record his groundbreaking album Bitches Brew - four LP sides of complex, challenging music which combined elements of jazz and rock in ways that were nothing like the relatively simplistic fusions that had been tried up to that point. In November, Davis went back into the studio and recorded further exploratory tracks, most of which were not released until years later. During those November sessions, Davis and the musicians recorded two takes of "The Little Blue Frog," a jam based on a riff by bassist Harvey Brooks, as well as a Davis original called "Great Expectations." The latter piece, 13 minutes long, consisted of the same short melody repeated again and again over an intense 7/4 riff; each repetition used a different sonority or combination of instruments.

In a move that can only be characterized as puzzling, Columbia decided to release a single from the November sessions in February, 1970, a month before the Bitches Brew album came out. Record buyers who put on "The Little Blue Frog" were treated to a decidedly odd little slice of improvisation, edited from the almost-ten-minute tape. The main threads as the record faded in were Khalil Balakrishna's sitar and Airto Moreira's cuica (the Brazilian "talking drum"). Larry Young's organ and John McLaughlin's guitar add atmosphere, but Miles's trumpet is not heard until halfway through the side.

The two minutes and forty seconds of "Great Expectations" on the flip side was perhaps not quite as odd, but it probably left many record buyers scratching their heads, since it was so different from anything Miles had ever done - there was no real trumpet solo, for one thing.

Things probably made more sense a month later, when Bitches Brew was issued, although that album took me years to really digest and process. The full "Great Expectations" was issued in 1974 on the Big Fun album. The two full-length takes of "The Little Blue Frog" didn't see the light of day until 1998, when they were included in The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set.

But for almost thirty years, the only way to hear the enigmatic "Little Blue Frog" was by spinning the 1970 single. I tracked down a white-label promo copy sometime in the 1980s, and played it for any music lovers who visited for a listening session. The original single edits have come full circle, and are once again available, this time in the 2010 "Legacy Edition" of Bitches Brew.

Supposedly, while walking out of the studio after recording "The Little Blue Frog," John McLaughlin and Herbie Hancock looked at each other and asked, "What was that?" Here's the single edit, so you can try to figure out the answer to that question.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Sam Rivers - Black Africa!

Aldo Sinesio's Horo Records was a remarkable jazz label; based in Rome, they issued 47 single LPs and 21 double records between 1972 and 1979. Horo leaned slightly toward avant-garde jazz, but they issued plenty of straight-ahead music as well, mostly by American artists, but with a few Europeans mixed in. Horo records were characterized by variable pressing quality (with plenty of pops and crackles), poorly glued sleeves that often came apart, and some truly remarkable music.

I have a personal fondness for Horo. Back in the 1970s, some of the best avant-garde jazz was issued on European labels, and it was hard to get your hands on here in the States. But in my college days, I discovered that the University of Georgia library subscribed to Jazz Journal International, a British magazine. Toward the back of an issue I was thumbing through was an advertisement for Horo Records. I excitedly Xeroxed the ad (I still have my copy) and started planning an order. I didn't have much extra money at the time, but if memory serves, I scraped up the cash to buy three albums, bought an international money order at the bank, and sent it off to Italy, hoping that I hadn't just thrown my money away. And in due course a package showed up on my stoop, containing Threads by Steve Lacy (then as now a particular musical hero of mine), Parabola by Gil Evans, and a third album I don't remember (probably one of the Sun Ra doubles or United Patchwork by MEV). I was slightly beside myself for a couple of weeks, spinning them over and over.

Shortly after that, Horo ceased operations - I don't know why, although I would guess that the company just wasn't profitable. Over the years, I found a few Horos in used record stores, and a few more on Ebay, in the early days of that site, when you could still find rarities at bargain prices. But my next big score came about 15 years ago. I had Googled "Horo Records" just to see what I could find, and came across Aldo Sinesio's bare-bones website, on which he was selling his remaining stock of albums. The prices were somewhat higher than those of my Xeroxed advertisement, but I once again scraped up as much money as I could and placed a large order. After I digested that stack of albums and built up my bank account again, I went back to find that website again, but it was gone. About six years ago, there was a new Sinesio website, with hints of a Horo reissue series, but that never happened, and Sinesio died in 2013. All Horo CD reissues (and I have one) seem to be bootlegs - so for the real deal, you have to find what's already out there.

If I have counted correctly, I have 21 of Horo's 68 releases, and I prize them for their excellent music and rarity. (Truth be told, I once had 22, but sold Garrett List's American Images - that's the only Horo I've ever heard that I didn't care for musically.) Looking back at my old advertisement, I get slightly despondent over the fact that I could have bought the entire Horo catalog for what would know be the price of about four or five Horo albums on today's collectors' market. But, of course, I couldn't do it then, so I'll just enjoy the records I have.

I've written a lot about the Horo label, and nothing about this album or Sam Rivers. Rivers (1923-2011) was a truly remarkable saxophonist, flutist, pianist, and composer. As an improviser he was "a master at resolving non-tonal phrases," as I once read. Beginning around 1970, he led a series of trios with bass and drums, or a "tuba trio" with that instrument in place of the bass. His later trios often played his compositions, but during the 1970s and 1980s his trio concerts were often totally improvised - even when the group fell into a groove, it was spontaneous rather than planned. That's the modus operandi of Black Africa!, a double album which preserves a 1976 concert by the tuba trio  at Umbria Jazz in Perugia, Italy. The level of interaction among Rivers (on soprano & tenor saxophone, flute, and piano), Joe Daley (on tuba), and drummer Sidney Smart is remarkable. The main part of the concert is spread over the first three sides, while side four is a long encore. Sam Rivers is at his best here.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Jimi Hendrix with Curtis Knight

This record was released at the end of 1967, for crassly commercial reasons. I just read the Rolling Stone review from the time, and it was amusingly indignant. In hindsight, it's a historically interesting listen, with at least one stunning track. And it's part of the chain of events that led to the Band of Gypsies album.

Here's the deal. One of the bands in which Hendrix served his apprenticeship in the early and mid 1960s was Curtis Knight and the Squires. In 1965 they recorded some tracks for producer Ed Chaplin; some of them were released as singles at the time. Chaplin signed the entire band to exclusive contracts, an action which would cause Hendrix much grief once he became a star.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience first visited the U.S. in 1967; this tour included the band's star-making appearance at Monterey Pop Festival. During that visit, Jimi showed up in a New York studio to jam with his old boss Curtis Knight. At least two tracks were recorded, including "Get That Feeling," on which Hendrix can be heard playing his new eight-string Hagstrom bass. Hendrix insisted that if the recordings were issued, his name could not be used. Yeah, right. Chaplin soon sold these new tracks, along with some of the 1965 recordings, to Capitol Records, who splashed Hendrix's name across the cover, above Knight's.

 As Hendrix took the rock world by storm, Chaplin brought legal action against him and Warner Brothers Records for breach of contract. The two sides finally settled, agreeing that Hendrix would deliver an album of original material to Chaplin, and that it would not be by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And that's why we have the amazing Band of Gypsies album, which came out on Capitol.

But back to this album. Most of the tracks are silly or derivative. But "Get That Feeling" is something else. The probably-improvised lyrics are nothing much, but musically this ten-minute jam is as driving as James Brown's band at its peak and as hypnotic as Fela. Hendrix's guitar-like lead bass is positively menacing, providing the spark which gives the track its extra dimension.

Chaplin's legal battles have continued, more recently with the Experience Hendrix organization, the Hendrix estate group which now controls his recorded legacy. That's probably why I couldn't find "Get That Feeling" online. But here it is from my copy - because you need to hear it.

Get That Feeling

Monday, March 13, 2017

Horace Silver Quintet on Blue Note 45

I'm sticking with Blue Note after my last post. BN put out 45 RPM singles as well as LPs. I have no idea how widely distributed through normal retail record channels these were; they were primarly intended for jubebox and radio play. Some singles were tracks from Blue Note albums (sometimes (edited for length), but many of them were recorded as singles, with no album release at the time. (I think that almost all of them have been reissued on CD, often as bonus tracks on CD versions of classic Blue Note albums.)

BN 45-1710, by the Horace Silver Quintet was one of those single-only releases, and it's a really interesting and enjoyable one. For one thing, this little 1958 record documents a version of the Silver Quintet that doesn't appear elsewhere on records, with trumpeter Donald Byrd on trumpet and tenor saxophonist Junior Cook as the front line. Silver is on piano of course, and his regular rhythm team of the time, Gene Taylor on bass and Louis Hayes on drums, complete the band. For the "A" side, the quintet is joined by Bill Henderson for a vocal version of "SeƱor Blues," which Silver had recorded as an instrumental a couple of years earlier. (Incidentally, Silver wrote lyrics for many of his compositions, even if they were recorded only as instrumentals.) The flip side is by the quintet without Henderson - a typical hard-swinging Silver original called "Tippin'," which runs over six minutes long.

Due to its single-only release status, this was one of Silver's most obscure Blue Note releases for many years. Since these tracks showed up as bonus tracks on the CD reissue of 6 Pieces of Silver, they have become easy to find, easy to hear. But my inner record collecting geek thinks it's cool to have a copy of the original 45.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Date With Jimmy Smith

Blue Note LPs from the 1950s and 1960s are prized by record collectors for their sonic qualities and the rather amazingly consistent excellence of the music. Co-owner (with Francis Wolff) Alfred Lion was the main producer for the label, and his great taste resulted in a long string of records of the highest caliber, with very few duds mixed in. Other factors involved in making Blue Note such a great label were the sound engineering of Rudy Van Gelder and the striking covers designed by Reid Miles. Van Gelder not only recorded the vast majority of Blues Notes, he also did the mastering. (He had his own cutting lathes in his studio.) Miles never had much of a design budget; Lion often told him to limit his designs to two colors. But Francis Wolff was a talented photographer, and Miles often used Wolff's photographs as the basis for his covers, and in the end created a body of work that defined the Blue Note label almost as much as the music.

One of Lion's discoveries was the virtuosic Jimmy Smith, who practically reinvented the Hammond organ as a jazz instrument. All of Smith's earliest Blue Note albums use the standard "organ trio" instrumentation: organ, guitar, and drums. The first time Lion put Smith with a larger group was for the February, 1957 session which produced the two volumes of A Date With Jimmy Smith. This is a typical informal jazz blowing session, and the horn players, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, and Hank Mobley are perfectly chosen for this kind of date. There are few surprises (and almost of them come from the unpredictable Mr. Smith) but much to enjoy.

My copy of Volume One is a mid-60s pressing; for any real collecting geeks reading this, it has one "47 West 63rd" label and one "New York" label. My Volume Two is a later Japanese Tobisha pressing, also with excellent sound. Here's the opening track of Volume One, "Falling in Love With Love."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

James Houlik Plays the Tenor Saxophone

The market for classical saxophone recordings seem to be limited mostly to other saxophonists. The saxophone is an instrument that has never captured the imagination of the classical music audience in the same way strings or even other woodwinds have. The saxophone didn't even exist until the 1840s, and it was pretty much ignored by composers for the rest of that century. And even afterwards, the composers who wrote for the instrument were not the "major" figures, for the most part. Well, Debussy wrote a piece for saxophone and orchestra, but his heart wasn't really in it, and it's far from his best work.

The status of saxophone in the classical world is kind of a shame, though, because it can be a beautiful, expressive instrument when playing composed art music. James Houlik is perhaps the foremost exponent of the classical tenor saxophone, an instrument that is even less common in the classical world that its smaller cousin, the alto sax. Houlik's sound is rich and cello-like, and he has an impressive command of his instrument. His 1975 album for the Golden Crest label (which specialized in chamber music) is as scarce as hen's teeth, as I discovered when I misplaced my copy for over a year and tried to find a replacement. (I finally discovered it in the wrong sleeve.)

Because of the record's rarity and musical excellence, I'm posting mp3s of each side below. The excellent piano accompanist is Paul Tardif.

Side one

Side two

Friday, March 10, 2017

Ornette Coleman - Body Meta

It won't be long before I post records by all of my major musical heroes. Ornette Coleman is certainly one of these; his music is a big influence on my own. On the day he died in 2015, I posted this on Facebook, "Ornette Coleman was one of my first and most important musical influences. His was some of the most natural-sounding music anyone has ever created. He showed me the way."

Yesterday would have been Ornette's 87th birthday, so of course I celebrated by playing several of his albums. Body Meta, recorded in 1975 and issued three years later, was the second issued example of Ornette's electric fusion band, which came to be known as Prime Time (although they are not billed that way here.) These five tracks come from the same Paris recordings sessions that produced most of the Dancing in Your Head album that introduced the world to this new development in Ornette's music.

Jazz musicians began exploring combinations of jazz and elements of rock or funk in the 1960s. This music is broadly known as "fusion," and examples range from those that are innovative and excited to those that are self-indulgent and expressively empty. Ornette Coleman's brand of fusion is unlike any other. It's dense, polytonal, and astringent - and at its best, very cool. And this is one of the best of Ornette's Prime Time albums. The band later became Coleman plus a "double trio" - two guitars, two basses, and two drummers - but here it's a five-piece band: Ornette's alto saxophone, Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee on guitar, Jamaaladeen Tacuma (still known as Rudy McDaniel at the time) on bass, and the great Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums.

Body Meta is on the Artists House label. Artists House was a project of veteran record producer John Snyder, and it was one of the most altruistic record labels of all time. The artists had complete control over the music and the cover art, and they retained ownership of the master tapes. Some of Artists House's LPs made it into the CD era with reissues, but not Body Meta or Coleman's other Artists House album, Soapsuds, Soapsuds, a duo record with Charlie Haden.

Once again, someone has uploaded the entire album to YouTube. The sound is typical compressed YouTube sound, but here it is for folks who don't have a turntable and a nice copy of the LP.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Arnett Cobb - Ballads by Cobb

One aspect of this album amuses me greatly: it has perhaps the ugliest cover of any record in my tcollection. And there's a reason for that.

Ballads by Cobb was originally issued by the great jazz label Prestige on its Moodsville subsidiary. The Moodsville label featured mellow, but solid jazz; music that could serve as background music to wooing your date on the couch, but which would also hold up to more attentive listening. The original Moodsville cover was kind of plain, but not ugly; it somewhat resembled the picture above, but with a pleasing color scheme.

Prestige had another subsidiary label called Status. Status was a budget label; when a Prestige album had been on the market for awhile, and presumably had met its expected sales goals, it was often given a Status issue. Prestige didn't scrimp on pressing quality for its Status records; a Status album provided the same listening experience as its higher-priced Prestige or Moodsville equivalent. But the company needed to give Status less, well, status, to minimize the market confict between the budget label and the main Prestige line.

So they made Status records look cheap and less desirable. Whoever was in charge of making Ballads by Cobb look crappier did a remarkable job by coming up with the bright blue lettering on the horrifyingly pink background. The labels on my copy are the regular Prestige/Moodsville labels - those were apparently used until the supply gave out and ugly Status labels were substituted.

The music is Moodsville-perfect. Saxophonist Arnett Cobb was of the hard-blowing "Texas tenor" school; he's somehow tough and gentle at the same time here. Pianist Red Garland is perfect for this kind of session, and veterans George Duvivier on bass and J.C. Heard on drums are tasteful and tasty.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Dave Tarras - Freilach in Hi-Fi

Probably because I have a klezmer clarinet gig coming up and have been practicing furiously, I felt compelled to play an album by the master of the klezmer clarinet, Dave Tarras. To get a technicality out of the way right off the bat, the billing on this album is "Murray Lehrer and His Ensemble," with Dave Tarras and trumpeter Lou Levin listed as featured musicians. But one spin is enough for the listener to realize that Tarras is the main attraction here; the back of the album cover even modifies the artist credit: "Murray Lehrer and His Ensemble Featuring Dave TARRAS on the clarinet."

The music is played by a typical New York City/Catskills-style klezmer band of the 1950s: trumpet, clarinet, accordion, piano, bass, and drums, playing traditional European-derived klezmer tunes, American Yiddish theater songs, and Israeli folk dances. The highlight is Tarras' doina (a slow, melismatic improvised melody), which forms the first part of "Doina and Tzushpiel."

Dave Tarras (1898-1989) came to the United States from Russia in 1921 (although "fled" might be a more accurate verb). He quickly established himself as one of the best clarinetists in the klezmer world, rivaled only by the great Naftule Brandwein. But Brandwein was as unpredictable and unreliable as he was talented, so Tarras ended up replacing him in several bands. His recording career began in the 1920s and lasted for decades.

There were three volumes of Freilach in Hi-Fi on the Period label; by the third volume, Tarras was the only musician to get a front cover credit. These were just three of the many LPs Tarras recorded in the 1950s, often for small, obscure labels. Period was perhaps a small label, but it was well-respected for its fine recorded sound (engineered by the famed Jerry Newman), and its impressive catalog of classical, jazz, and world music.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Sounds of Synanon

Synanon was originally a drug treatment/rehabilitation facility in Santa Monica, California, started by Charles Dederich in 1958. As time went by, things got weirder and weirder - in 1967 Dederich declared that none of the "patients" could ever leave, and Synanon basically became a religious cult. It became more and more violent - horrifyingly so, really. Here's a detailed history, for those who are interested.

But early on, some excellent jazz musicians went through the program at Synanon; the great saxophonist Art Pepper was probably the most famous resident. In 1961, before Pepper's tenure, Richard Bock of Pacific Jazz Records decided to record some of the Synanon musicians for an album. The most well-known at the time was pianist Arnold Ross, whose career stretched back to the 1940s and big bands - he led a great recording session with Benny Carter on saxophone in 1946. Ross was always an interesting and imaginative player, and he's very good here, at approximately the halfway point of a long playing career.

But Sounds of Synanon helped put one musician on the path to a distinguished career in the jazz business: guitarist Joe Pass. He had made a few recordings before this, but his playing here really caught the critics' ear, and led to a recording contract with Pacific Jazz. He didn't even own a guitar at the time (he was in drug rehab, after all), and the liner notes thank the Fender company for donating a guitar and amp. The back cover picture shows Pass playing a solid-body Fender Jazzmaster - which, in spite of the name, was far from the kind of hollow-body jazz guitar he probably would have preferred. No matter - his playing is might impressive.

The other musicians on the album are competent, to varying degrees, but not really on the same level as Ross and Pass. The adjective that came to my mind to collectively describe them was "unfinished." None of them ever recorded again, as far as I can tell. I can only hope that they escaped Synanon before things really got bad.

Sounds of Synanon was never reissued in the U.S., but there have been CD reissues in Japan and Europe. Someone has put the entire album on YouTube, so here it is.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Robert Curtis Smith - Clarksdale Blues

Clarksdale Blues, the 1961 Prestige/Bluesville album by the obscure Robert Curtis Smith, is one of the finest blues albums ever made, despite its being so little known. Smith was a highly talented guitarist and singer with an individual style, but this was his only album, and his only other issued records are a 45 RPM single and a few tracks on blues collections.

When Smith died in 2010, I wrote about him elsewhere on the internet. Rather than repeat myself any further, I'll post the link here.

Here's his "Council Spur Blues," in which he calls out the owner and the foreman of the plantation where he lived and worked - a brave gesture indeed for 1961.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Marion Brown - Solo Saxophone

Alto saxophonist and composer Marion Brown (1931-2010) was born and raised in Atlanta; he attended Clark College, an HBCU, before enrolling in Howard University and subsequently moving to New York, where he became part of the avant-garde jazz scene. He was mentored by Archie Shepp, and played on John Coltrane's monumental Ascension album. He spent time in Europe, put out some great albums, and taught at Bowdoin College. Like many avant-gardists, his output became somewhat more conservative as he got older, but it always sounded personal and striking.

Solo Saxophone documents a 1977 concert at Environ in New York City, issued on Sweet Earth Records. The label was apparently inspired by Brown; it's named after one of his compositions, "Sweet Earth Flying." Sweet Earth only put out five albums, but two of them are Brown-related, this one and an album of Amina Claudine Myers playing Brown's music on piano.

The music from this solo concert is excellent, and well-recorded and pressed, too. It's hard for an improvising wind player to keep things interesting when playing solo, but Brown does just that, largely by frequent references to the melody (or other distinctive elements) of each piece, so that his improvising relates strongly to the composed elements. And each piece has its own flavor, which Brown sustains throughout. There's been no reissue of this one, so if you see a copy, grab it.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Bach for Percussion

I found this odd little gem in the dollar bin of an Atlanta record store several years ago. The 1956 album features four of Bach's organ works transcribed for - no kidding - unpitched percussion instruments. Arranger John Klein's idea was that the structural aspects of Bach's music would hold up even without pitch and melody. A contemporary review said, "The result has the effect of an X-ray photograph of a flower — barely recognizable, eerie and oddly fascinating." It is oddly fascinating, although I don't know how much it's actually Bach. The playing, by the New York Percussion Ensemble (members of the New York Philharmonic) is impeccable, not surprisingly. Whatever this album is, I'm glad to have it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Al Johnson - Carnival Time

Today is Ash Wednesday, according to the Christian calendar, which means that the madness of Carnival season in New Orleans ended (more or less) at midnight last night, Central Standard Time. So, of course, last night I had to play Al Johnson's joyous Mardi Gras anthem, "Carnival Time." This 1960 recording was Johnson's only real hit, and it was only a local hit, but it was enough to establish his career. "Carnival Time" has become a Mardi Gras standard, and is, in effect, a hit again every year - so much so that its writer and singer is usually referred to as Al "Carnival Time" Johnson.

Johnson's catchy little tune has two extra beats leading into every chorus ("...all because it's Carnival Time..."), an anomaly that perturbed some of the studio musicians when it was recorded in Cosimo Matassa's famous studio on Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter. It was finally bassist Placide Adams who insisted to the other musicians that Johnson should have the meter and the phrasing like he wanted it. For the record, the other musicians are are Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John) on piano, Edgar Blanchard on guitar, drummer Walter Lastie, and James Rivers, Lee Allen, and Robert Parker on saxophones. (Rivers plays the tenor sax solo.) For reasons I don't know, "Carnival Time" (and its flip side, "Good Lookin'") was issued on both Ric and its sister label, Ron, with the same catalog number; I think the Ric issue came first. 

I have to relate a wonderful New Orleans memory. In 2002, I visited Mid-City Bowling Lanes (aka the Rock 'n' Bowl) with a friend to hear some Crescent City R & B. The band was co-led by Eddie Bo and Snooks Eaglin, and they were great. But much to my surprise, halfway through the evening Oliver Morgan was brought onstage - he did three songs, ending with his hit, "Who Shot the La La." Then Al Johnson came out, and also did three songs, ending of course with "Carnival TIme." All the locals in the audience knew all the words and sang along. It was a great evening.