Saturday, November 10, 2018

Listening to Prestige 356 - King Curtis

Prestige has welcomed several of the rhythm and blues stars of the 1940a into the jazz mainstream (where they always belonged), and now the king of the rhythm and blues saxophone. If you were a rhythm and blues fan become jazz fan in the 1950s, you couldn't help but love King Curtis. His 45 RPM single of "Birth of the Blues" was one of my all time favorites, and it probably paved the way for me to fall under the spell of John Coltrane.

King Curtis is given the Prestige treatment, with Esmond Edwards producing and some major jazz figures making up an all star quintet, including Nat Adderley making his Prestige debut and Paul Chambers making and increasingly infrequent return to the label of many of his early triumphs.

But he brings the King Curtis sound with him. The other rhythm and blues veterans, like Hal Singer and Willis Jackson, bring a little nostalgia with them, remembering the R&B of the classic 1940s era. Newer players like Eddie Davis and Shirley Scott, are looking forward to the new soul era of the 1960s. Curtis, though he did begin his career with Lionel Hampton (and though he did play with Ornette Coleman in high school) is solidly right now. And why not? His sound, on countless records for Atlantic and other labels, defined the R&B saxophone of the 1950s. He explores a lot more possibilities here, but it's still the King Curtis sound.

The big difference between jazz and rhythm and blues of this era? Length. Jazz was an LP music, R&B was tailored to 45s, the jukeboxes, the radio DJs whose audiences were used to that three-minute format. That meant that an R&B instrumental number was built almost entirely around the main solo instrument, be it saxophone, guitar, piano or even harmonica. A jazz tune can easily, with extended improvisation and with solo space given to every member of the ensemble, go eight to ten minutes or longer. Obviously, this creates a whole different dynamic.

The other players here are a mixed lot. Nat Adderley pulled a stint with Lionel Hampton, but his career was almost entirely within the modern jazz idiom, In that, he finds plenty of common ground with Curtis. He turns out to have been a good choice. Wynton Kelly has a wide-ranging musical vocabulary, and he works well here.
The most interesting work on the session is turned in by Chambers and Oliver Jackson, who seem to have come prepared to have a good time. Chambers does some of his signature virtuoso solos, including a very strange and haunting bowed bass at the end of "In a Funky Groove," but he also does some unusual stuff, particularly on "Da Du Dah," and Jackson just doesn't hold anything back.

I'm guessing "Little Brother Soul" is Nat Adderley composition, but it may be a Curtis original paying tribute to Cannonball's little brother. Aside from "Willow Weep For Me," the others are all Curtis originals, and he shows some nice range.

The album was called The New Scene of King Curtis. It was released on New Jazz.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Listening to Prestige 355 - Lem Winchester

Just when I had despaired of ever seeing another bad pun in a jazz composition, Lem Winchester comes to my rescue with "Lem 'n Aide" from this session, and better than that, we have the album's title, Lem's Beat, a sly reference to Winchester's previous career as a police officer in Wilmington, Delaware.

Lem's aide on this session is Oliver Nelson, who wrote three of the tracks, played saxophone and is credited as arranger. Both Nelson and Winchester were to have lives cut short, and not attained the kind of reputation that longer lives might have afforded them. It's good they found each other for this session.

Curtis Peagler of the short-lived but interesting Modern Jazz Disciples rounds out the front line. Peagler mostly faded into obscurity with the rest of the disciples, but the little that he did put on record is worth attending to. He's joined on two tracks by a fellow Disciple, Billy Brown. The piano duties on the other tracks are handled by Roy Johnson, about whom I can find no other information. Perhaps he was someone Winchester knew from his early days in Delaware. The rest of the rhythm section is Wendell Marshall, ubiquitous, and Art Taylor, not heard from in a couple of months, both more than welcome.

Oliver Nelson, already recognized as one of the finest composers of his era, contributes three tunes, the melodic "Eddy's Dilemma," the riffy "Lem & Aide," and "Your Last Chance," which combines the best of both worlds. Nelson becomes the dominant voice on these, but Winchester is a strong partner, and Peagler proves to be an excellent choice as second saxophone, falling right in with Nelson's ideas and bringing his own voice to them.

Roy Johnson's contribution is "Lady Day," the shortest cut of the day at 2:51, haunting and moving, with Winchester and Peagler taking center stage.

"Just Friends" is back, and it's good to hear such a different take on it. And let's trust that they were all friends, and needed no persuasion to be so, since the other outside composition is the movie theme "Friendly Persuasion." My guess...Roy Johnson was a friend of Lem's from the old days? And from the compatibility of Nelson and Curtis Peagler, and the fact that piano duties were shared between Johnson and Billy Brown, maybe the disciples were old friends of Oliver's? And by this time, producer Esmond Edwards had to be pretty tight with Wendell Marshall and Art Taylor. "Friendly Persuasion" is a sentimental ballad by Dmitri Tiomkin that Winchester deals with by not trying to avoid the sentimentality, and it's a good choice. A nice number for friends to pitch in on.

Lem's Beat was a New Jazz release.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Listening to Prestige 354 - Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Shirley Scott

What a difference Ray Barretto makes to a session!

Of course, it's not just him. Davis and Scott blow the cathedral ceilings off Rudy Van Gelder's Englewood Cliffs shrine, and if you ever wondered if Moodsville meant "you can sneak this record on for your Jackie Gleason fans, and maybe they won't notice it's jazz," you can forget that right now. This is a session that left me thinking two things, and two things only. One, I'm so glad I'm a jazz fan and I get to experience music like this, and two, How is it possible that I never heard this before?

So pardon me if I'm speechless for a while, as I just listen to the music a few more times, all the way through.

OK, I'm back. Still amazed. Eddie Davis plays right on that sweet spot at the cusp of bebop and rhythm and blues. Ray Barretto is the musician's musician on congas, equally adept at playing Latin or bebop, but sensitive as he is to the boppish tempos of Mr. Jaws, this one has that Latin edge all the way through. And Shirley Scott is the perfect accompanist to Davis's bebop and the perfect spur to send the music into the next decade. My God, she could play! And she was so inventive.

The Moodsville album which uses the bulk of this session's material begins with two numbers from an earlier trio session. Then it starts afresh with "Give Me a Goodnight Kiss," by Lee Morse, a singer of whom I was previously unaware, but she was a big deal in the 1920s, matched only by Ruth Etting for record sales.

Curious, I listened to Lee Morse's recording of "Give Me a Goodnight Kiss."  She's a very nice singer, and in those days she had her own band, which included Eddie Lang and a couple of new kids named Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey. She puts a twist of yearning into the song, Davis hears it a bit differently.

It's interesting that he hears it at all. Morse kept performing through the late 1940s, but by the end or th3 1920s alcohol had pretty much destroyed her. Her jump to superstardom was supposed to come in 1927 with the starring role in a Zeigfield musical, but on opening night she was too drunk to go on, and her place was Ruth Etting. Etting's signature songs, like "Love Me or Leave Me" and "Ten Cents a Dance" (should have been Morse's; it was from that musical) have become standards, but I can find no other version of "Give Me a Goodnight Kiss."

Davis takes the first solos at a good but not breakneck tempo, abetted by some tasty work from Wendell Marshall and Ray Barretto, nicely completing each other's thoughts, and some always ingenious comping from Scott. When she comes in about two thirds of the way through for her solo, you realize that as good as Davis has been, this is what you've been waiting for. She builds up to a series of crescendos, and then Davis comes back for a final version of the head, again with Barretto and Marshall, and with a sweet, yearning quality that's reminiscent of Lee Morse.

This is the beginning of an eclectic set. They follow with Frank Loesser's "Moon of Manakoora," originally sung by Dorothy Lamour in a movie (and yes, she was wearing a sarong). It's had a number of pop recordings, and a few jazz interpretations, starting with Benny Carter and also including Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Rowles. Davis, Scott and Barretto get pretty seriously into it, eleven minutes worth, Barretto starting the game with a challenging and seductive rhythm.

"Just Friends" was composed by John Klenner, who is not known for much else, but pretty nearly
everyone has recorded "Just Friends," with the honors probably going to Charlie Parker with strings. This version would have to be right up there, though, with the three principals spurring each other to new heights. "Speak Low" has a haunting melody by Kurt Weill, sensitively handled by Davis with Barretto providing a rhythmic counterpoint. Davis gets wilder as the number progresses, and by the time Scott joins in all bets are off, although Davis comes home to the melody at the end.

"I Wished on the Moon" was written by Ralph Rainger, who had an impressive career before dying young in a plane crash. It finishes up the album, but was the first tune to be recorded that day.

The Moodsville release was entitled Misty. and hit the shelves in 1963. The odd tune out for the day was Cole Porter's "From This Moment On." It was added to a 1967 release, Stompin'.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Listening to Prestige 353 - Shirley Scott

Most of this session went on a Moodsville album, along with four songs held back from an earlier date.

She had a new bass player for the date in George Tucker. Tucker had some experience accompanying organs, having played on Johnny "Hammond" Smith's two Prestige albums. She continued with Arthur Edgehill on drums.

She is perhaps a little more subdued for Moodsville. Musically, she continues to reward the listener, but with a more limited palette of sound. Rather than
seeking out new possibilities of electronic sound, she stays close to the sound of a piano, the percussive individual notes stretched just a little by the electronic sustain of the Hammond. So it is in its own way an experiment with the different possibilities of her instrument. As one of the most popular jazz musicians of the decade, she recorded a lot, both with Prestige and Blue Note, and later Impulse and Atlantic, and she was always going to find a way to make it interesting.

For the four Moodsville songs, she picked two Rodgers and Hart standards, "Spring is Here" and "I Didn't Know What Time it Was," and you can't go wrong with Rodgers and Hart. The other two are also ballads, and equally romantic, but from composers with interesting stories. "I Thought I'd Let You Know" was composed by Scott's fellow Philadelphian Cal Massey in an uncharacteristically romantic mood; Massey was to become best known for his uncompromising political stance on civil rights, which caused him to be blacklisted by some of the large corporate record labels.

Jimmy Davis (not the Louisiana governor who wrote "You Are My Sunshine") is best known for written for Billie Holiday which has become a classic, but his story is more than that, and worth remembering. Drafted in 1942, he refused to report to a segregated army and demanded that either be exempted or seconded to the Canadian army, which was integrated. When both demands were rejected, he chose prison over a segregated armed forces. He did eventually agree to join the army, and was sent to France in 1945 with a musical unit. He fell in love with the country, and eventually, like many other African-American musicians, became an expatriate.
"Lover Man," a song

"Bye Bye Blackbird" was held for a 1961 release, Shirley's Sounds; "Autumn Leaves" and her own composition, "Bridge Blue," had  wait until 1966 and Workin'..

She also cut two tunes, "Crazy Rhythm" and "The Things You Are," with Earl Coleman. They were never released. Too bad. Coleman really never got his due.

Esmond Edwards produced.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Listening to Prestige 352: Al Casey

This is Al Casey's first recording as a leader, but a long way from being his first rodeo. He started his career working with Fats Waller in 1933.

It was also a long way from being his last rodeo. In 1981 he would embark on what may have been his biggest success when he joined the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band. This was the opposite end of the spectrum from Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, whose members had to retire when they reached 16. To join the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, you had to be at least 80. Founded in t973, it is still going--needless to say, with none of its original members. At various times, it has been graced with the presence of Doc
Cheatham, Eddie Durham, Eddie Chamblee, Peck Morrison, Jay McShann, Claude Hopkins, Cozy Cole,  and many other working jazzmen and women who'd lived long enough and could still play strong enough.

Casey, in 1960, had a regular gig with King Curtis. For this session, he drew on the Curtis band for sidemen, but went back to his Fats Waller days for musical inspiration, and even for musical talent, with reed man Rudy Powell.

When Casey joined the Waller band as a wet-behind-the-ears 18-year-old, Powell was 26 and a veteran of a number of regional bands including Rex Stewart's. He would hook up with Waller and Casey in 1935. He was still in demand in the 1960s, working with Jimmy Rushing, Buddy Tate and Ray Charles. He would eventually join the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Belton Evans was no newcomer to recording, but he may have been new to recording under the name of Belton. Previously, he had recorded as Sammy "Sticks" Evans, and every possible variation of that name: Sammy Evans, Sammie Evans, Sticks Evans, Stick Evans. So it seems that he finally decided to settle in, and use his real name?

Not exactly. Samuel Evans does appear to have been his real name; Lord knows where he came up with Belton. And his range as a drummer was as varied as his choice in names, from King Curtis and Wynonie Harris through LaVern Baker and Aretha Franklin through John Lewis, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman.

Jimmy Lewis was a guy who knew how to change with the times, moving from double bass with Count Basie to electric bass as that instrument became popular. Like Evans, he was on call for a wide range of recording sessions, from Wilson Pickett to the Modern Jazz

Quartet (he didn't replace Percy Heath, but added an electric bass to a session that featured the MJQ with a big band). He was a first call for gigs, too, as evidenced by some of the live albums he can be heard on: Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club, Alberta Hunter's Downhearted Blues: Live at the Cookery, and some live recordings of Otis Redding at the Apollo. This was his first Prestige session, but he would become a familiar face during the 1960s.

Herman Foster is mostly known for his work with Lou Donaldson, but he was with Casey in King Curtis ensemble at the time of this recording.

The music is just flat-out rewarding. It's always great to hear the Fats Waller classics, and of pariculat interest is "Buck Jumpin'," a tune originally written by Casey for the Fats Waller Orchestra, and here revived by the composer..

Buck Jumpin', appropriately, is the title of the album, and it was a Swingville release.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Listening to Prestige 351: Lonnie Johnson - Elmer Snowden

This may have been the best known of Lonnie Johnsons albums for Prestige. It featured a second guitarist who was also a second  Chris Albertson career revival: Elmer Snowden, an important bandleader in the 1920s and 30s who had recorded little, and had completely fallen off the radar. Like Johnson, he was working a menial job in Philadelphia when Albetrson found him.

Elmer Snowden has one particularly unusual credential, He was the leader of a  Washington, DC-based group called the Washingtonians. He brought the band to New York, but was having trouble getting bookings, so he sent to DC for an up-and-coming piano player, fella named Duke Ellington. You know the rest of the story

.In addition to Washingtonians like Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton, Snowden over a long career as bandleader had Count Basie. Jimmie  Lunceford. Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge and Chick Webb, so he must have been no slouch at developing and mentoring future bandleaders. He had started out as a banjo player, but as the call for the banjo in jazz faded away, he switched to guitar (though he would make a jazz banjo album for Riverside in the 1960s).

Accompanied by Wendell Marshall on base, the two guitar players had a day of it, recording 22 songs, of which ten were chosen for the original vinyl album release, although almost all of them would eventually come out on CD. There were some vocals, more instrumentals, as Johnson got his wish to be seen as more than just a blues singer. Just a couple of old guys who know everything and can play all night.

The ten selections that made the album are pretty representative of the whole session. "Haunted House" is an original 12-bar blues by Johnson. He also sings the Eubie Blake-Andy Razaf chestnut "Memories of You" with a lighter, breezier voice: Lonnie Johnson the jazz singer.

"Blues for Chris" is their first instrumental, a tribute to their rediscoverer and producer Chris Albertson. Composer credit is given to Albertson and Elmer Snowden, and it's a fun piece, with some nice blues licks by both guitarists and some solid work by Wendell Marshall.

"I Found a Dream" is another Johnson composition, but this one a dreamy ballad. The two guitars manage some bluesy licks with a Charles Brown feel, but the vocal channels pop balladeers of a different era. Johnson doesn't seem to have listened much to contemporary balladeers like Sam Cooke or Clyde McPhatter. He draws more on the style of Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, or the Irish tenors of his generation like Morton Downey or Dennis Day. But he ramps up into full vaudeville mode with "St. Louis Blues," not paying too much attention to W. C. Handy's careful construction, just having fun. And it is fun. Then he sort of marries all these styles, including his blues style, in an old pop song, "I'll Get Along Somehow," written by Arthur Marks and Buddy Fields. Listening to this one, my first thought was, "this could be the hit single," and it appears that Bob Weinstock thought the same thing, as it became a 45 RPM release.

Johnson and Snowden put their guitars together for a jam session on a traditional jazz tune, Kid Ory's "Savoy Blues," and the results are delightful. It's only one like it on the album, but "C-Jam Blues" and "Lester Leaps In" did eventually get released.

Johnson had recorded Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" back in the 1920s, and with Snowden's help on guitar, he gives it the full blues treatment here.

Snowden's "Elmer's Blues" has a decidedly modern rhythm and blues feel. Well, maybe not modern for 1960, but certainly modern for 1950; not bad for a couple of old guys from the 1930s. Pretty damn good, in fact. And they finish up with Johnson's "He's a Jelly Roll Baker," which also made it onto a later Bluesville anthology called Bawdy Blues.

The album was called Blues & Ballads, and was a Bluesville release. "I'll Get Along Somehow" was the first 45, with "Jelly Roll Baker" on the flip side, and it was also the second 45, this time with "Memories of You."

Listening to Prestige Vol. 3, 1957-58, is just about ready to go to press! I'll announce shortly when I'm ready to start taking orders.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Listening to Prestige 350: Red Garland

Of the subsidiary labels that Bob Weinstock created to swing into the new decade, Moodsville is the most debatable. Swing and blues are undeniably important and arguably underserved genres, at least in this time frame, but mood music? Isn't that just watered-down jazz?

Except it isn't. Chris Albertson has asserted that every session produced for Prestige was held to the same high musical standards, and if you look at the artists in the Moodsville catalog, they're not watered-down anything.

You can raise the chicken-and-egg question. Did Weinstock say, "Hey, let's bring Red Garland in for a solo piano session, and we can release it on Moodsville"? Or did Red lobby Weinstock for solo session, and did Bob then, listening to the finished product, say, "Hey, that could work for Moodsville"?

It's questions like this that keep me up at night. And I'm entitled. In fact, as both an intellectual and a jazz fanatic, I'm doubly entitled to wakeful nights pondering pointless and unanswerable questions.

Why don't I just shut up and listen to the music? I do that too.

You can get a lot of music in when you've just got a solo piano, and Garland recorded two albums' worth on this balmy April day (I looked it up; temperatures were 15 degrees above normal). In spring a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love, but Garland was playing alone, and his fancy turned to being alone, to songs about love lost. He was also thinking random thoughts about the blues, and apparently playing tunes as they came into his mind, so ultimately they were separated out to make two albums, and I'll take the songs album track by album track, starting with Red Alone, which became the third Moodsville release.

He begins with "When Your Lover Has Gone," written by Einar Swan for the James Cagney movie Girl Crazy. Swan was a dance band musician turned composer, and you'd think there'd be next to nothing written about him, which was true until 2006, when Scandinavian historian chanced upon a mention of him, noted his unusual first name, decided he must be Finnish (he was--the family name was Joutsen, Finnish for Swan), decided to research him and ended by writing a 90-page biography. Swan's father emigrated from Finland because he heard that American workers had an 8-hour day which meant he would have time to study music. All his children were musical, and there was a family orchestra.

"These Foolish Things" was written by British composer Jack Strachey, who also composed "A Nightingale Sang in Barclay Square." It's one of my favorite ballads.

The rest are mostly the work of composer royalty--Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Victor Young.

"Nancy with the Laughing Face" was written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Phil Silvers, and is generally thought to have been written for Frank Sinatra's wife, but it wasn't. Silvers had originally written as "Bessie with the Laughing Face, but that was apparently considered either too ethnic or too bovine.

Man does not live by Red Alone, so the remaining titles were gathered together in a second, album, Alone with the Blues, and as one can expect from Red Garland, there's a wide-ranging selection process, delivering a veritable history of the blues. Classic blues is represented by Leroy Carr's "In the Evening (when the Sun Goes Down)." We take a trip to Kansas City for Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner's "Wee Baby Blues." Ahmet Ertegun (as A. Nugetre) and pianist Harry Van Walls wrote "Chains of Love," which was an Atlantic recording for Big Joe. Jazz is represented across the decades: "Cloudy" by Mary Lou Williams; "Sent for You Yesterday (and Here You Come Today)" by Count Basie, Eddie Durham and Jimmy Rushing; "Blues in the Closet," by Oscar Pettiford; and John Coltrane's "Trane's Blues." All of it given the Garland touch.

Listening to Prestige Vol. 3, 1957-58, is just about ready to go to press! I'll announce shortly when I'm ready to start taking orders.