Friday, August 22, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 23

So I'm sitting in a club listening to a group led by J. R. Monterose, at a front table, and after a solo J. R. comes and sits with me, and we're talking a little -- quietly, respectfully, listening to the music -- as the other members of the group go through their solos. Suddenly, in mid-sentence, he stands up, gets back up on the bandstand, waits a couple of beats, and comes in right on cue.
But what cue? A nod of the head or a hand signal that he was watching for and I wasn't? A prearrangement that each soloist would play a certain number of bars, and while sitting and chatting with me he's also counting them out? I couldn't even do that if I were in an isolation booth, tapping it out with my feet.  A sixth sense that tells him when the soloist is going to run out of ideas? We know that John Coltrane could solo virtually forever. When Miles Davis commented on it, Coltrane said that sometimes he just didn't know how to stop. Davis's suggestion: "Try taking the horn out of your mouth."
Which conceivably could have cued J. R. - the other guy takes the horn out of his mouth, or lifts his hands up off the keyboard -- if J. R. Is standing next to him on the bandstand, not anticipating and getting out of his chair and climbing back up on the bandstand.
All of which goes to make my oft-made point that I am not writing this as a music professor, or musicologist, or musician, or musical anything but fan. Larry Audette, or some other jazz musician who might be reading this, can certainly tell me how this works.
And all of which brings me around to Sonny Stitt once again, back in the studio for two more Prestige sessions, the first with Gene Ammons -- two classic bebop tenors, playing off a loose structure that gives plenty of room for improvisation trading lines of unequal length back and forth with casual intricacy that leaves me wondering "how do they do it?" But mostly just appreciating that they're doing it.
We know it wasn't rehearsed, because Bob Weinstock didn't allow for rehearsal, and in any case, you couldn't really rehearse that sort of improvisational give and take. I guess you could write a chart -- I'll take twelve bars and then you take four and then I'll take four and then you take eight but I'll overlap the last one...but I don't think so.
I only found two selections - "Blues Up and Down" and "You Can Depend on Me" - on a Spotify, so they were my car listening, but a third, "Bye Bye," with some propulsive drumming by Jo Jones, was on a site that was new to me --  Shelf3d. I can't embed it, but i can link to it. "Blues Up and Down" and "You Can Depend on Me"are both just the quintet, Stitt, Ammons, rhythm section.
"Blues Up and Down" Is represented in three takes. Sometimes a plethora of alternate takes can be a nuisance if you're listening to a CD, but if you're doing a close and repeated listen to just a few tunes, it's fascinating. The first take of  "Blues Up and Down" is good (though incomplete - they stop halfway through), but the second take is where it really comes together. The opening chorus is now more than just a riff, and the solos take flight. The third take may be tighter, or it may just be that they needed a third because it's the only one they actually finish, but I do love the second. I don't hear a lot of difference in the two takes of "You Can Depend on Me" (and there's only a couple of seconds difference in time) but they both sound good.
On the same day, they backed up a vocalist named Teddy Williams -- essentially the same session, but it's listed as a Teddy Williams session because the 78 was issued under his name - later rereleased on LP as both a Stitt Session and an Ammons session -- and much later, as part of a box set called "Stitt's Bits: The Bebop Recordings," although there's not much bebop in evidence on these two tracks, although lord knows they're  different enough from each other. They're both on Spotify.
On the first, "A Touch of the Blues," Williams is not particularly singing much more than a touch of the blues. It's a ballad in that Billy Eckstine style - more like Al Hibbler, really - and Stitt and Ammons play a chart that seems to have been written for a big band reed section. On the second, "Dumb Woman Blues," Williams belts out a conventional 12 bar blues in the style of Wynonie Harris or Roy Brown. And the horns play riffs that could easily be from a Wynonie Harris session, with one solo break (Ammons? I'm not good enough to be sure) that takes into that blue-gray area between bebop and rhythm and blues -- an area that's always interested me. Back in the day, the jazz tastemakers disdained rhythm and blues. Symphony Sid, if a caller requested Ray Charles, would answer scornfully, "We don't play rock and roll." But the same was not true of musicians. On Slim Gaillard's "Slim's Jam," Charlie Parker jams with "MacVoutie" - Jack McVea, best known for the R&B novelty smash "Open the Door, Richard," and another R&B bandleader, Paul Williams, had his biggest success with "The Hucklebuck," which is essentially Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time." Many jazz musicians, including such pinnacles of refinement as the MJQ's Connie Kay, played R&B dates. 
Oh, and maybe I'm not the musical dunce I think I am. Well, I am, but maybe I'm not the only one. The reviewer of the Stitt-Ammons sessions on says "at times, when [Stitt] and  Gene Ammons are dueling on tenors, it's difficult to tell the difference between them," whereas the Amazon reviewer talks about "the contrast between Stitt's swift, complex phrases and Ammons's gruff passion" (how's that for bebop meets R&B?) I'm with the Amazon guy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 22

Next up on the Jazz Discography Project is a Charlie Parker session, and that got my juices flowing, because there's still no more magical name in jazz than Charlie Parker. But I can't include it. Jazzdisco lists every session that eventually got released by Prestige, so this one is included, but it was only a rerelease package put out in 1973, by which time there was really no more Prestige. In 1971 it had been sold to Fantasy, a West Coast label, and it was essentially just a reissue house.

I don't know yet how long I'll keep this blog going. Maybe 1971 is a good year to stop. I'd been thinking 1969, which would give me a twenty year run. I'll have to see how thin the pickings get as we get farther into the 60s -- I'm making a point of not looking ahead, but letting things unfold to me as they unfolded in those years. And remember, to me this is still history. I was ten years old in 1950, and had never heard of jazz.

So anyway, the Charlie Parker set is a live recording from St. Nicholas Arena, mostly known for boxing, so fight fan Miles Davis would have felt right at home had he still been with the group, but he wasn't. Red Rodney was the trumpeter, and the rhythm section was Al Haig, Tommy Potter, and Roy Haynes.

Stick around with that rhythm section, however, because they're next on deck. There are two more European recordings (the Jacques Dieval Quintet with Peck and Moody again, this time Annie Ross one song, but it can't be found at any of my sources; a Swedish group led by Arne Domnerus), and on February 27, the Al Haig Trio.

They recorded four songs -- "Liza," "Stars Fell on Alabama," "Stairway to the Stars," and "Opus Caprice" -- the last an Al Haig composition, and all of them, for whatever reason, songs he had also recorded with Stan Getz.

Of them, none can be found on YouTube, and only "Liza" on Spotify. If you want to share this listening experience with me, and you're a Spotify subscriber, you can follow me, or connect with me through Facebook, and I'll share my "Prestige" playlist with you -- whatever Prestige recording session I'm listening to on that day. Or you can just find the songs yourself. If you have a really great vinyl collection, of course, you can just go straight to the source -- like this 45 RPM EP.

Today, my playlist only has one song on it -- "Liza." So plenty of leisure to give it several listens, and really appreciate how good Al Haig -- not just as an accompanist, but as a soloist. Influenced as much by Monk as by Bud Powell, but very much his own man. I'm guessing he wasn't in that much demand as a leader, but if this is any guide, he should have been.

Tommy Potter steps out in front too, and acquits himself wonderfully. I'm trying to think if there were any superstars of the bass during this period, other than Charles Mingus. People like Paul Chambers came later. Ray Brown was around, but I don't think he was out front much in those years. Oscar Pettiford, probably. Jimmy Blanton, certainly, but he died so young. Slam Stewart, but in a different context. Tommy Potter and Curly Russell were the backbone of so much of bebop, and you read so little about them, but they were so important.

I can't hear Roy Haynes's name in my head without hearing Sarah Vaughan, on "Shulie a Bop" (on Mercury), introducing "Roy...(drumroll)...Haynes (drumroll)!" Haynes is still alive, still performing, still great.

And me...listening to "Liza" one more time. and wishing I had the rest of the session.

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 21

A gap in the timeline. Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis recorded four sides for Prestige on February 7, 1950, but while Davis is widely represented on both Spotify and YouTube, I can't find this session anywhere. Too bad. Davis was joined by Al Casey, already an oldtimer in 1950 (I heard him play in the '90s with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band), a veteran of Fats Waller's band among others; and 19-year-old Wynton Kelly, in his first recording session. Two cuts had vocals by R&B vocalist "Chicago" Carl Davis, which makes me really sorry not to have found it -- I'm always interested in the overlap between modern jazz and rhythm and blues in this time period.

Then two European sessions, one led by French pianist Jacques Dieval, about whom even the French Wikipedia has next to nothing (but James Moody and Nat Peck played on the two-song date), and the other by a Swedish group led by vibraphonist Ulf Linde.

So the next session we have access to is Sonny Stitt again, this time with a different group of sidemen, including Art Blakey, who's most associated with Blue Note, where the Jazz Messengers recorded a lot of their albums, but who had a Prestige presence as well. Blakey, ageless and prolific, actually recorded for a lot of labels.

Without Bud Powell, most of the solo space here goes to Stitt, and the session is more ballad-oriented. Of the selections, I especially liked "Mean to Me," which is a beautiful melody, and lends itself to bluesy improvisation.

This was another of the handful of recordings originally released on the Birdland label.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 20

When Chuck Berry said he had no kick against modern jazz, except they try to play it too darn fast, he had to have been thinking of sessions like this one -- Sonny Stitt leading the same group six  weeks later, and this time tearing through four uptempo numbers - five if you count the alternate take on "Fine and Dandy."

This group features the men who revolutionized modern music, but two who especially revolutionized it. Max Roach, with Kenny Clarke, changed the way that drums were played, moving the beat to the lighter, more flexible high-hat cymbal, and using the bass drum for accents. Bud Powell changed the way that the piano was played, giving a different role to the left hand. This led to the denigration of modern players as one-handed. Art Tatum, in particular, was initially disdainful of Powell, declaring that he could only play with one hand, until Powell proved him wrong by playing a tricky uptempo solo entirely with his left hand.

But Berry was wrong, of course. It's fast, but not too darn fast. In the hands of masters like these, the speed is exhilarating and joyous, and the complexity and surprises of bebop only make it more so.

These are songs I wouldn't have thought of as jazz standards, especially "Strike up the Band" and "I Want to Be Happy," but actually they've been recorded by others -- Art Farmer, Stan Getz and Red Garland have all found ways to jazz up George Gershwin's version of marching band music, and Ella Fitzgerald and princess of Cool Chris Connor have done vocal versions.

This is great stuff, alive and thrilling. You've gotta listen.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 19

Bob Weinstock seems to have entered into a short-lived partnership with Morris Levy, who was among other things the owner of Birdland, to form a record company called Birdland Records. It's probably just as well for Weinstock that it was short-lived, since Levy was quite likely the crookedest crook in a business not entirely known for honesty. Levy was known, among other things, for his skill with white-out -- taking the names of actual songwriters off of the papers filed with the US copyright office and substituting his own. In a posthumous suit against Levy, Herman Santiago and Daniel Negron, two of the writers of "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," one of the biggest hit songs of all time, testified that they had made a total of $1000 off the song, and that Levy had threatened to kill Santiago if he came around asking for more.

In any event, Birdland Records seems to have put out a handful of 78s in 1950, the first of them coming from this session with Stan Getz and a half-new quartet from his June 1949 session -- Al Haig is there, but now he's joined by Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes -- a quintessential bebop lineup. On two of the cuts there are vocals by Junior Parker, later to become known as one of the great rhythm and blues singers.* is a stunningly complete discography of Prestige's catalog by recording date, and invaluable. Another site,, which has a dizzying plethora of lists compiled by fans and organized by some algorithm I couldn't begin to guess at, is less complete but pretty accurate as near as I can make out, and they have a variety of lists by release date. They have both the Birdland 78s and the Prestige 700-series of this session coming out in 1950, so Birdland must have been very short-lived indeed.

The songs on this date are mostly standards --"Stardust," "Goodnight, My Love," "There's A Small Hotel," "Too Marvelous For Words," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "What's New," "Intoit." "Goodnight, My Love" (not the rhythm and blues standard by Jesse Belvin; this is a song originally introduced by Shirley Temple) and "Stardust" get the Junior Parker vocals, and he is singing in a style distinctly different from his later R&B recordings. Here he seems to have been heavily influenced by Billy Eckstine.

Eckstine is probably not as highly regarded today as he once was -- too florid to be a really successful jazz singer. But he was important in the history of modern jazz -- the first bandleader to give Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie a prominent role. And he influenced other jazz singers who are little remembered, like Kenny "Pancho" Hagood and -- had he not returned to his blues roots -- Junior Parker.

Eckstine was a little too florid, and his imitators a lot too florid -- especially when matched with Getz, who is certainly a romantic, but a drier, more modern romantic. He can unquestionably work with a singer -- "The Girl From Ipanema" proves that -- but he's not a good fit with Parker, or Parker is not a good fit for him. They say that along with the violin, the tenor saxophone is the instrument most alike in quality to the human voice, and on these standards, Getz sings. I love all of them -- even the Parker "Stardust," which grows on you, but mostly the instrumentals -- but perhaps "Too Marvelous for Words" more than any. "Too Marvelous" has a beautiful melody by Richard Whiting, and clever lyrics by Johnny Mercer, but...rather than hearing someone expend a whole lot of words to tell me that words won't do the job, I'd rather hear someone use words to do the job, as in "There's a Small Hotel" (Lorenz Hart) or "I've Got You Under My Skin" (Cole Porter).

Al Haig takes some terrific solos here too, but mostly it's Getz, Getz, Getz, and Getz at his youthful best.

These also came out on 45 RPM -- is a little vague on the 45s, but I'd guess maybe still in 1950, more likely in 1951 -- and on their 10 inch LP series -- along with the previous Getz session -- in 1951.

* In no biography or discography of Junior Parker that I've been able to find online -- and some of them are pretty complete -- is there a reference to this session with Stan Getz. All the ones I've seen have him first recording with Modern in 1952. But I'm fairly certain it's the same guy. If it turns out I'm wrong, and this is just a curious coincidence of names, I will eat crow. For now, I claim a discovery.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, Part 18

This finishes off 1949, Prestige's first year of operation, and a year that saw them still releasing exclusively on 78, though these early cuts would be re-released as they moved into the still-new LP field - and some on 45 RPM EPs. Many of these early records were originally recorded for European labels, then licensed to the fledgling Prestige for American distribution, giving Bob Weinstock the beginnings of a substantial catalog, and one hit: James Moody's "I'm in the Mood for Love."

December 21, 1949, saw Coleman Hawkins in Paris, with a group of ex-pats and French players, cutting a bunch of songs that never seem to have been released on any European label -- at least according to jazzdiscoorg -- and seem never to have received any exposure at all until years later, when they were finally released as part of the Prestige 7000 series. It may have originally been a radio broadcast.
Coleman Hawkins

Hawkins had lived the ex-pat life in Europe during the late 1930s, and throughout the 40s made several trips back across the Atlantic. Most notably with him on this date was Kenny Clarke, the bebop drumming pioneer who at this stage of his life was still back and forth to Paris, but would eventually (after a stint as the original drummer for the Modern Jazz Quartet) settle in Paris permanently. The other ex-pat was trombonist Nat Peck, who according to Wikipedia is still alive -- and someone should be interviewing him! He could almost have made my "living artists who played with Bird" series -- he did play with Dizzy Gillespie in 1953.
Of the French artists, Hubert Fol's bio can only be found on the German Wikipedia, but he played a lot with Django Reinhardt, as well as working with Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Howard McGhee on European tours. Pierre Michelot, who died in 2005, has an impressive resume with American ex-pats and touring musicians, but these two stand out for me. He was the bass player in a regular trio with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke. And he worked with Miles Davis in creating the score for Ascenseur pour l'echafaud.

The session included six songs -- "Sih-Sah," "It's Only A Paper Moon," "Bean's Talking Again," "Bay-U-Bah," "I Surrender Dear," and "Sophisticated Lady." I only found "Sih-Sah" and "Bean's Talking Again"on Spotify, so those were the two I listened to most closely. They're billed as sextet records, but the other two horns play on very short opening and closing choruses, then stay out of the way. Which is a wise choice. Hawkins is strong, mellow, lyrical, beautiful. Both are ballads -- in fact. they're very similar.

You can find all or most of the cuts on YouTube thanks to a channel created by Heinz Becker. Here's "Sih-Sah":

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records - Part 17

Interesting exchange of notes on Jazz Collector's blog:

Something I’ve long wondered is — if an artist without a regular working band came in to can an album, how were the sidemen chose? At Blue Note, for example, did Alfred and Frank assemble the players, or would a guy with some pull like Dexter Gordon say, “Hey this is who I want to play with?” Could a name artist veto a sideman? Maybe the leader would come in with a couple of guys and then Lion would fill in the holes? It’s pretty clear that a lot of artists tended to record together, but overall it’s just something I’ve always wondered about.

First response:
My understanding from numerous jazz biographies, liner notes, etc is that the choice of sidemen was a combination of who the label knew; who the leader knew; and, often most importantly, who was in town on the days set for recording. Aside from steady bands (or pre-planned dates with written material), it was just catch-as-catch-can with the limited number of top guys who lived in town (or who happened to be in town for a while). I’m sure some folks with experience in the industry can provide more color (or correct my impression).

And another:
I would also bet that the label would pick sidemen that might bring some new tunes to the session, and that the label in turn might be able to extract publishing rights from those tunes. (Not that this ever happened of course)

And a third:

The sidemen story makes a lot of the great recordings seem like a stroke of dumb luck. Similarly, could some records have achieved legendary status in jazz history if so-and-so had been in town to play bass that day?

In the sixties, when three pretty good (all right, very good) guitarists got together, they were called a supergroup, and the recording was called a super session. In the jazz of the 40s and 50s, that happened all the time.

On December 11, 1949, Sonny Stitt came into the Prestige studios to record four tunes with a quartet, and the other members of the quartet were Curly Russell, Max Roach, and Bud Powell. Why these four, on that day? Hard to say. Bob Weinstock started Prestige because he had access to a lot of jazz players, because they hung out at his record store. Were they playing gigs in town? No way to find out that I've discovered. The New Yorker's Goings on About Town listings for that week include trad jazz clubs like Eddie Condon's and Jimmy Ryan's, but no club that featured modern jazz. Snobbery?
Racism? They just didn't get it? Lord knows, modern jazz was being played in New York. Bird land opened in 1949. 52nd Street had passed its prime, but there were still clubs there besides Jimmy Ryan's. Miles Davis had his Birth of the Cool nonet at the Royal Roost. The Famous Door was still around, although the Onyx had traded in jazz for strippers.

But for whatever reason, talk about a supergroup! And yes, this sort of thing happened all the time.

The four tunes are "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm," "Sonny Side," "Bud's Blues," and "Sunset." All are available on Spotify, either as the Sonny Stitt Quartet or the Bud Powell Quartet.

Sonny Stitt was 25 in 1949. He had met Charlie Parker six years earlier, and he was considered by many to be the player stylistically closest to Bird. It would be interesting -- for someone with a better than mine, and more musical knowledge -- to compare the
styles of the beboppers who spent their formative years playing in swing or rhythm and blues bands, and those who were virtually weaned on bebop.

These are four amazing cuts. If I had to pick a favorite moment, perhaps it's the trading back and forth of riffs between Stitt and Powell at the beginning of "Bud's Blues,"and the way Stitt takes it off from there, but all of it is wonderful. The composition of "Bud's Blues" is variously attributed to Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt - probably they both had a hand in it. It's become a jazz standard.

I suppose this could be considered, to use an Internet cliche, "I listen to the Prestige catalog so you don't have to," but you do have to. Listen to at least one cut from this session. "Bud's Blues" is a good one, but they're all good.

These sides were released on 78, on a 1951 10-inch release entitled Sonny Stitt and Bud Powell, and on a couple of different 7000-series LPs. including one called Sonny Stitt with Bud Powell and J. J. Johnson, incorporating the earlier J. J. Johnson's Boppers session.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records -- Part 16

Wardell Gray is known to aficionados of American literature as being one of the jazz musicians mentioned in Jack Kerouac's On The Road, along with George Shearing, Slim Gaillard, and Dexter Gordon, with whom Gray's name is forever linked as one of the great tenor sax pairings in jazz history.
He was known to younger musicians on the West Coast as a role model for music...and more:
 After Bird, the skinny tenor man from the Billy Eckstine band was the musician most admired and respected by the younger players. He spoke quietly and articulately, admired the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and the politics of Henry Wallace, boosted the NAACP and advised fledgling jazzmen on music and life, particularly in regard to the futility of messing with drugs.
 But he is most importantly known as a musician's musician, a man who could--and did--play with mastery in any style, from swing to rhythm and blues to be bebop. Benny Goodman, who at first rejected the new music, had his opinion changed by one man:
If Wardell Gray plays bop, it’s great. Because he’s wonderful.
And when Goodman experimentally formed a bebop group (they played good music, but no one wanted to hear
Goodman play bebop, and he abandoned the experiment), Wardell Gray was the first person he hired. In fact, Gray is most likely the only musician to have recorded with Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Charlie Parker.

Most famously, as a West Coast tenor player energized by Charlie Parker's ill-fated California tour, he engaged in a series of tenor battles that were captured on wax in "The Chase."

And perhaps second most famously, from his first session for Prestige, "Twisted," which became another vocalese hit, this one for Annie Ross, and later Bette Midler.

Gray was mostly known as a West Coast musician, but he did spend enough time in New York to cut a few sessions for Prestige. This first one, with as classic a bebop rhythm section as one could wish for, includes "Sweet Lorraine," "Southside," "Twisted," and "Easy Living." They capture everything that was great about Grey: lyricism, edginess, tone, inventiveness. And this is the sort of album that I started this blog looking forward to finding: brilliant musicians, a tight group, inspired blowing, spontaneity.

These four tunes were originally released by Prestige on their New Jazz 78 RPM series (817 and 828). and Southside/Sweet Lorraine also on a Prestige 78 (711). They were part of a 100-series 10-inch LP (Prestige PRLP 115--Wardell Gray Tenor Sax) and later on a couple of 7000-series albums, including the very complete Wardell Gray Memorial Album (PR 7343). All of Gray's work can be found on Spotify, and he's well represented on YouTube. Here's "Twisted."

And here is a segment from the documentary on Gray, Forgotten Tenor.