Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Preservation Hall Jazz Band - So It Is

Here's a brand-new slab of vinyl by a very old band that has recently reinvented itself. Preservation Hall was opened in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1961, as a no-frills venue designed to give the remaining first- and second-generation jazzmen of the city a place to perform. At first, there was no thing as the "Preservation Hall Jazz Band" - a different musician led the band each night, and the group was billed under his or her name. By the 1970s, though, Preservation Hall was a brand, and although there were still a varied lineup of bands that played the Hall, the main touring band was billed as The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. A classic lineup for many years was the one with the Humphrey brothers - Percy on trumpet and Willie on clarinet. For many listeners from the 1970s through the early 1990s, the Humphrey Brothers band was The PHJB. As the older musicians died out, they were replaced by younger ones - still playing strictly traditional New Orleans jazz.

But things change, and the owner of Preservation Hall (who also played tuba with the band), Allan Jaffe, died unexpectedly in 1987. His widow, Sandra, ran the Hall until 1993, when her son Ben Jaffe took over. Ben is an accomplished bassist and tuba player, and he also had some original ideas about what Preservation Hall and the band should be. As the 20th century turned into the 21st, Jaffe had the band collaborate with indie rock bands and pop and folk singers. In 2013, the PHJB released That's It!, an album totally composed of original compositions by the members of the band - no "Clarinet Marmalade" or "Tiger Rag" is to be found. But every track still sounds like New Orleans music. Just five days ago, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band released their second all-original album, So It Is. Like its predecessor, it's an excellent album of Crescent City music. For someone who savored every note by the Humphrey Brothers, the Wurlitzer electric piano and funk beats take a little getting used to, but yeah - this stuff is real. Here's a live version of "Convergence" from the new album:


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Johnny Copeland - Down on Bending Knees

Between the late 1950s and the early 1980s, Texas guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland recorded dozens of soul/blues singles, on both regional and national labels. I have 15 of them, and spun just over half of those last night. "Down on Bending Knees," released on Golden Eagle in 1962, will represent them all here.

Copeland was "discovered" by the wider blues community in the 1980s, and was recast as a hard-core bluesman for the rest of his career. But in reality, he played and sang R & B as well as blues. Golden Eagle 101 is typical for him - it pairs a blues with an R & B/soul tune, "Just One More Time," on the flip side. I don't know whether the printed title of the blues side is the result of a producer's mishearing, but Copeland seems to be singing, "down on bended knee." He performed this song for the rest of his career - as "Down on Bended Knee," by the way.

I can't find much information on the Golden Eagle label, except that it was based in Texas. I have three Copeland 45s on Golden Eagle, as well as records on the Wand, Jet Stream, Resco, Allboy, Bragg, Kent, Brown Sugar, Wet Soul, and Atlantic labels. The best of them are deep Southern soul/blues. Here's "Down on Bending Knees."

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

James Clay & David "Fathead" Newman - The Sound of the Wide Oen Spaces

Cannonball Adderley was invaluable to the small Riverside jazz record label. The alto saxophonist was one of Riverside's top-selling artists, but also worked as a talent scout and producer. This was the first album he produced for the label; it featured two "Texas tenors," the up-and-coming David "Fathead" Newman and the then-unknown James Clay. The rhythm section is a typical one for Riverside: Wynton Kelly on piano, bassist Sam Jones, and Art Taylor on drums.

 The term "Texas tenor" is a stylistic description as well as a geographical one. The idea of the Texas-born, aggressive, hard-toned, bluesy tenor player goes back at least to Herschel Evans' tenure in the Count Basie band; later players so typecast included Buddy Tate, Illinois Jacquet, and Arnett Cobb. Newman and Clay represented the new generation of Texas tenors. Newman was already making a name for himself with the Ray Charles band when this album was recorded in 1960, and his playing sounds mature and assured. James Clay, who was only 24, sounds a little raw here, with a few reed squeaks along the way. Clay doubles on flute on "What's New," and he's quite accomplished on the smaller instrument. Here's the long blues "Wide Open Spaces"; Newman is the first soloist.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Buffalo Springfield

Buffalo Springfield was one of those rock bands that could be described as "transitional." In the 1960s, teen pop rock and roll was transitioning, in some quarters, to the more serious music-for-listening that rock would become. Buffalo Springfield was full of talent, but exhibited the growing pains of the maturing rock style. In retrospect, it was an all-star band, but only in retrospect - Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay weren't well-known at the time. Those three were the main songwriters and singers; bassist Bruce Palmer and drummer Dewey Martin filled out the band.

Much of the songwriting was quite interesting, but kind of dated. And the recordings were often overproduced - Neil Young's "On the Way Home," for instance, is a great song, which he has performed throughout his career. The production here sucks all the life out of it, though - there's just too much of everything.

Among all the not-quite-great material they recorded, though, there are three real gems: Stephen Stills' iconic protest song "For What It's Worth," the unedited nine-minute version of "Bluebird," and a country-rock masterpiece, Richie Furay's "Kind Woman." This two-record retrospective, issued in 1973 on Atco, has them all - and represents the only issue of the long version of "Bluebird." The interplay between Neil Young's electric and Stephen Stills' acoustic guitars is so good that I'm not sure why the full version has never seen the light of day elsewhere.

This collection has tracks from all three of the band's original albums: Buffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield Again, and Last Time Around. The first album was recorded in the summer of 1966; by the time Last Time Around was finished in 1968, the band had fallen apart. They managed to finish the album, but not all the members appear on every track. That last album showed, however, the emerging brilliance of the band's three songwriters. Particularly interesting is Stills' "Questions" - a good song that was later revamped as the second half of an even better one, "Carry On," recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

Here's Richie Furay's wonderful "Kind Woman":

Monday, April 17, 2017

Sidney Bechet - King of the Soprano Saxophone

This is the first time an artist has made a repeat appearance in this blog; I posted about another of his albums here. Like that earlier post, this one features an album drawn from Bechet's period of living in France n the 1950s. The recordings date from 1952 to 1955, and were mostly recorded for the French Vogue label. The Contemporary label licensed twelve tracks and issued them on Good Time Jazz, their traditional jazz subsidiary, in 1956.

The heart of the record is a 1954 session which pairs Bechet with fellow American Jonah Jones and a French rhythm section. Jones is a powerful trumpet player, and there are moments that hint at Sidney's sometimes fraught musical relationship with strong trumpeters. The soprano sax and trumpet have similar ranges and Bechet, with his strong personality, was sometimes loath to defer to the trumpet's traditional lead role. But for the most part, the two veterans work well together, and pianist Andre Persiany plays impressively.

The album is filled out with tracks on which Bechet is accompanied by the "trad" bands of Claude Luter and Andrew Reweliotty. The young Frenchmen don't have much original to say, but Bechet is strong throughout. His sound, imagination, and vibrato make me think of Steve Lacy's comparison of Bechet's sonority to the sun.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Tom McDermott - New Rags

Tom McDermott is my favorite living New Orleans piano player. His influences include ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton, James Booker, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Brazilian choro music. He somehow blends all of these threads together into a style which is kaleidoscopic, yet original and personal. This is his first album, recorded for the traditional jazz label Stomp Off in late 1981 and early 1982.

McDermott grew up in ragtime country - St. Louis - and was still living there when this record was made. It's more or less a ragtime album, but a wide-ranging one. There are two James P. Johnson stride piano classics and a Charles Hunter rag from  1902, but McDermott wrote the rest of the pieces here. A couple almost sound like traditional ragtime, but most display McDermott's harmonic imagination and gentle wit. I particularly like "Almost Rag," so titled because the piece only has two themes rather than the usual three or four.

I have no idea what McDermott thinks of this album these days. He still performs rags frequently, but often "McDermott-izes" them, as in the very cool version of "Maple Leaf Rag" I've included below, since New Rags has not been reissued in digital form.

The multi-talented Mr. McDermott also painted the cover art for this album, and has recently published a book of limericks.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Hank Marr - Sounds From the Marr-Ket Place

Columbus, Ohio jazz organist Hank Marr (1927-2004) had a long career, and made many records for the King label, based in that city. This one, with its awful punning title and baffling drawing of the New Orleans French Quarter on the cover, is extremely interesting for the personnel. Most discographies state that the personnel for this 1964 album is unknown, but in recent years the jazz world has figured out that this record represents the first recorded appearances of tenor saxophonist George Adams and guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer.

Adams and Ulmer gained prominence in the 1970s as fiery musicians who managed to blend avant-garde tendencies with influences from their bluesy R & B backgrounds. While neither Adams nor Ulmer was fully developed stylistically by 1964, their distinctive sounds were already in place. And Adams betrays himself with a few licks that he was still using 20 and 30 years later.

Sounds From the Marr-Ket Place is solid soul-jazz, with a few tracks which are more overtly R & B. Someone has put the entire album on YouTube; given its rarity, I'll share it here.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Davis Sisters - In My Room

Philadelphia's Davis Sisters were a major force n gospel music for many years; this 1967 Savoy album catches them about halfway through their long career. There were personnel changes through the years of course; on this album the sisters present are Ruth ("Baby Sis"), Audrey, and Alfreda, along with Cynthia Young. I'm not sure who the guy on the cover is - perhaps pianist Curtis Dublin.

This is strong gospel music, with a lot in common with the soul music of the era - or maybe the other way around is more accurate. The accompaniment varies from track to track, but includes organ, piano, bass, and drums. 

Savoy was one of the independent labels that sprung up in the 1940s; they specialized in all kinds of black music - jazz, gospel, and what would come to be known as R & B. (They called it "jump blues" back in the day.) By the 1960s they concentrated on gospel, although they still issued an occasional jazz album. Most of Savoy's many gospel albums have not been reissued making their gospel LP catalog an invaluable archive.

Here are couple of tracks from the album. I'm glad to say that my copy is in better shape than the YouTube poster's copy.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Jack DeJohnette - Cosmic Chicken

Veteran jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette was born in Chicago in 1942 and is still going strong. He's one of my favorite drummers; his very personal style draws from Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, as well as from funk and world music - but he never sounds like anyone other than himself. Cosmic Chicken, from 1975, was the second of his two records on the Prestige label, before his long run on ECM. It's also the first by his working band, which he called Directions. (Later bands were called Special Edition and New Directions.) Alex Foster is on saxophone, John Abercrombie on guitar, and Peter Warren on bass. DeJohnette  himself plays keyboards as well as drums - he is a trained pianist.

All the pieces, except for Steve Swallow's "Eiderdown" and a DeJohnette piano solo, are credited to the entire band, which seems to indicate that they are largely or completely improvised. Some of them obviously had some discussion beforehand - at least an agreement on key and tempo. The results are mostly some sort of psych/jazz/fusion, and mostly pretty good. Even if later DeJohnette albums reached greater heights, Cosmic Chicken (which never had a CD reissue) is very interesting and enjoyable.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Duane and Gregg Allman with the 31st of February

There are three main groups of recordings on which Gregg Allman and his brilliant brother Duane appear together prior to the formation of the Allman Brothers Band in 1969. The Allman Joys recorded a series of sessions in Nashville in 1966; the results may not be great, but they are interesting. At its best, the group produced high-energy, fuzzbox-driven blues/rock.

The brothers' next group, The Hour Glass, seemed to have great potential. Their gigs at the Whisky a Go Go and the Troubadour in Hollywood were apparently a step in the direction of the Southern soul/blues/rock fusion that came to fruition with the ABB. The music  establishment was impressed, and the band was signed to Liberty Records, for whom they made two albums. The eponymous first album is overproduced lightweight pop, with a touch of less-than-impressive blue-eyed soul. The second album, Power of Love, is better, but is still a far cry from being an accurate representation of the band's strengths. Frustrated by the tight control that the record company was exerting over them, the band  retreated to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and recorded a self-produced session that is still mightily impressive. Unfortunately, Liberty wasn't impressed, and the recordings weren't issued until several years later, after Duane's death.

The final pre-ABB recordings by the brothers were made in the fall of 1968, when they hooked up with a Jacksonville band called The 31st of February. The core of that band was Scott Boyer (later of the band Cowboy) on guitar, David Brown on bass, and Butch Trucks (later of the Allman Brothers Band) on drums. The 31st of February already had an album out on Vanguard when Duane and Gregg joined.

Duane & Greg Allman (with Gregg's name misspelled), issued on the Bold label in 1972, represents the 31st of February's unfinished second album. It's definitely not a finished product - there are places where where instrumental solos were obviously going to be added later, and once Gregg can be heard to say, "The break will go here."

But in spite of that, these are the most musically interesting and rewarding of the Allmans' "apprenticeship" recordings. Gregg's songwriting has come into its own, as can be heard in "God Rest His Soul," Gregg's tribute to the recently murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. And Duane's playing is very nearly fully developed at this point - he has mastered the slide and pretty much put away the fuzzbox. There are two near-masterpieces on the album, the blues standard "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," and the first recorded appearance of Gregg's haunting "Melissa." The latter songs marks the first recorded appearance of Duane's "bird chirp" slide guitar playing - that very high, beautiful sound that was unique to him. The legendary March, 1969 Jacksonville jam session that resulted in the formation of the Allman Brothers Band was just around the corner.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Howard McGhee - Star Dust EP

In spite of what I said a couple of posts ago about 45 RPM EPs dying out in the US, they still showed up occasionally after the 1950s. Here a really rare one from veteran jazz trumpeter Howard McGhee, who played with Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins in the 1940s. I snatched up this record when I found it at the Jazz Record Center in New York City last year. Owner Fred Cohen had not been able to turn up any information about the obscure record, which is not listed in any discography. I haven't done much better, but I did find a small advertisement in the January 23, 1971 Billboard magazine, indicating that the record was put out by producer Harrison Smith.  Smith is credited as composer of three of the four tracks; that may provide a clue as to why this record was made.

The recorded sound is boxed-in and confined, but the music is pretty good. McGhee's accompanists are second-tier New York jazzmen who acquit themselves well enough. Eddie Jefferson, well known in jazz circles, sits in for the vocal on "Sammy," a Smith composition. McGhee himself plays very well. I'm glad I found this one, even though I want to know more of the story behind it. Here's one representative track:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Gagaku: Ancient Japanese Court Music

Gagaku, the "Music of a Thousand Autumns," is supposed to be the oldest unchanged musical tradition in the world, going back to the eighth century or so. I have doubts about that "unchanged" bit - all musics that are passed down orally change over time. I am convinced that the moments when the ryuteki flute and the oboe-like hichiriki diverge melodically are due to accidental misrememberings which became permanent. 

Those two melodic instruments are accompanied by the sho, a kind of mouth organ capable of playing several notes at once, the koto and biwa (string instruments), and several types of drums. The music is strange, slow-moving, and haunting. I was lucky enough to hear three gagaku performances (or rather, two performances and a rehearsal) on a trip to Kyoto several years ago. I fell in love with the music, which in an odd way always reminds of the blues - probably due to the frequent use of bent notes.

Everest issued this LP by the Nippon Gagaku Kai in 1972, but I suspect the recordings were made in the 1960s. Here's a typical piece, "Etenraku," performed in the Hyojo mode.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Edmond Hall - Czech EP

Records have had "format wars" from the beginning. Early on it was cylinder vs. disc, then lateral vs. vertical grooves. By 1920, the 78 RPM disc had won, and except for a few scattered experiments, was the standard way for a consumer to hear recorded music for over 25 years. In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the LP, the 33 RPM long-playing record. Suddenly one side of a 10-inch record could play for 15 minutes instead of for three. A 12-inch LP could have 20 or more minutes per side instead of five.

RCA Victor retaliated with the seven-inch 45 RPM single and EP. The former was designed to replace the 78; the latter could hold around seven or eight minutes at most per side, although six minutes per side was more usual. Two formats competed for awhile, and the two companies wisely agreed to cross-license the two formats with each other and with other companies. The market soon sorted things out - consumers decided against the 10-inch LP and the seven-inch EP, preferring the 12-inch LP for albums and the seven-inch 45 for singles.

But for whatever reason, the betwixt-and-between 45 RPM EP remained popular in Europe into the 1970s. Here's an example, apparently recorded for that format. In the summer of 1960, New Orleans clarinetist Edmond Hall (that's the preferred spelling) toured Czechoslovakia and Hungary - then both behind the so-called "Iron Curtain." Backing was provided by the big band of Gustav Brom, a well-known Czech bandleader. Although the band was not the equal of its best American counterparts, it was pretty good, and Hall and the Czech musicians soon formed a mutual admiration society. After one Prague gig, the band was put up in a cheap hotel, while Hall was offered a suite in a hotel for VIP visitors. Hall turned down the offer, and stated that he would be staying with his colleagues.

I should say something about the great Edmond Hall. He was born 1901 in Reserve, Louisiana, 40 miles upriver from New Orleans. He moved to New Orleans when he was about 18, and after some musical success there, moved to New York. There, during the 1930s and 1940s, he established a reputation as a fiery, creative, and reliable clarinetist who was influenced as much by Benny Goodman as by the music of New Orleans. He had a stint in Louis Armstong's All Stars, and was perhaps the best clarinetist in the various incarnations of that band.

This cool four-song EP was issued on the Czech label Supraphon. Here's the opening track, a Hall original called "Swingin'" - or "Tančíme" in Czech.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Pee Wee Russell Plays Pee Wee

A lovely album, with a lovely cover, in lovely condition, found in a Savannah junk store a couple of decades ago. Clarinetist Charles Ellsworth "Pee Wee" Russell (1906-1969) was often typecast as a strictly dixieland player, but he was in fact one of the most interesting improvisers in jazz - his music was almost always unusually inventive. Pee had a sound that alternated between vulnerable fragility and growling aggressiveness. He was not possessed of a virtuoso technique, so his music depended almost totally on his unique musical imagination. To borrow Lester Young's phrase, a Pee Wee's solo will always "tell a story" - a story with unusual twists and turns, told with Russell's very personal voice.

Pee Wee Plays Pee Wee was issued in 1957 on Ster-O-Craft, one of the earliest labels to specialize in the then brand-new stereo technology. Recording quality is excellent, although these days we would not have the clarinet panned so far to one side. Russell is accompanied by a sympathetic, swinging rhythm section - Basie acolyte Nat Pierce on piano, the underrated veteran Steve Jordan on guitar, bassist Walter Page, and drummer George Wettling. The title seems to imply a program of Russell originals, but that's not the case. Pee Wee only wrote a couple of the tunes here; the rest are "Great American Songbook" standards. Here's one of those standards, Pee Wee's delicately off-center rendition of "Over the Rainbow" Ironically, the YouTube video is in mono sound, rather than stereo. You get what you pay for, I guess.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gil Evans on Ampex

Gil Evans is another of my musical heroes. He's a jazz arranger, but that doesn't really begin to describe what he did. He wasn't much of a composer - most of his originals are very slight melodically. But whether he was working with his own material or other folks' compositions, he didn't "arrange" as much as recompose. The barest of musical sketches, the tritest of pop songs blossomed in his hands. His early work is complex and carefully worked out, but during the 1960s his work looser and more improvisatory, until by the 1980s he had what was in effect an improvising big band. Evans would give the band a melody line and a groove, and the band would create the arrangement spontaneously.

By the time Gil made this record for Ampex in 1969, that loosening-up process was well underway. Most of the pieces here are Evans originals, but for many of them, it's hard to imagine that much was written down. I'm going to quote my favorite jazz critic, Max Harrison:

No longer is Evans concerned with mathematical symmetry or balanced repitition, but rather, it seems, with a reflection of the mysterious complexity of the forms of nature, in particular nature's love of analogy instead of repetition. The lyrical tenor saxophone "solos" by Wayne Shorter in "Barbara Story" on The Individualism of Gil Evans or by Billy Harper in the Ampex "General Assembly" are only single threads in textures which now defy both description and analysis; the music is a seamless web in which lines cross and re-cross, glowing, opalescent colors come and go in inexhaustible combinations. Hear, for example, the magically woven fabric of "Hotel Me" on the Individualism set, the exquisite beauty of even the tiniest details of the Ampex "Proclamation."
 In fact this music increasingly happens on several levels at once, recalling the multiplicity of events in Charles Ives' works. Things happen close up, in sharp focus, others take place in the middle distance, some murmer far away on the horizon, and the exactness of Evans' aural imagination is such that we can hear it all, every note, every vibration, carrying significance.
 The impressive band, which includes such jazz luminaries as Jimmy Knepper, Billy Harper, and Elvin Jones, handle Evans' loose, but demanding approach magnificently, as can be heard in "General Assembly" and "Proclamation" below. These were apparently uploaded from a later reissue on the Enja label. Again, the compressed YouTube sound makes me cringe, but at least you can get an idea of what Max Harrison was talking about.