Saturday, August 29, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 140: Freddie Redd

One of the special joys of this blog is discovery. Someone I hadn't heard before...someone I didn't know enough about. And that's the case here. This is a treasure. This is music for real lovers of jazz. No pyrotechnics, no drama, just wonderful piano playing by a real artist. It's funky, it's melodic, it's inventive, it goes right into you.

Freddie Redd is probably best known for Jack Gelber's 1959 play about junkies waiting for their pusher Godot, The Connection. The play focused on a bunch of junkies sitting around a New York crash pad, waiting to get high. The cast includes four jazz musicians, most notably Redd and Jackie McLean. Gelber's original script had called for the musicians to just be sitting around noodling odd scraps of music, but Redd convinced the playwright to let him compose a real score. This was a good idea for all sorts of reasons. It was certainly stronger artistically. It was better for Freddie, because a composition meant steady...income, that is. Beyond what he was getting for acting, which in those days Off Broadway was not much. When you think about it, whatever the producers paid Freddie for the score, it was a good investment, because if the quartet had just had to sit around noodling night after night,,they would have been noodling something, and ASCAP would have been on them like a ton of bricks.

The Connection was made into a movie by Shirley Clarke, with Redd again featured, and an album of the music from the play was released on Blue Note, but none of this made Redd into a star of the jazz world. If you were to mention his name to someone from that era--like me, for instance--you'd probably get "Oh, yeah, The Connection. Did he ever do anything else?" And because in The Connection, he plays a heroin addict, the person you were talking to would probably assume he had died young.
The Connection

In fact, Redd is still with us, and as recently at 2013, according to his Facebook page, he was performing in Baltimore (his Facebook page only has 683 likes -- not enough).

But let's get back to this single session of four tunes for Prestige. His playing is simple and complex. straightforward and adventurous, bluesy and boppish. It engages the mind and goes straight to the heart. "Debut" is ornate in the manner of Bud Powell or even Art Tatum. In "Blues for Lady J" he plays the blues, elaborates on the blues, returns to the blues. "The Things We Did Last Summer" is a 1946 hit for Jo Stafford, by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, that's become a jazz standard. Redd gives it a beautiful, moody rendition that stays close to the melody but always offers something more. It comes in at just under six minutes, which gives Redd plenty of space to explore all its possibilities. "Ready Freddie" is taken at a faster tempo, and is a bravura piece for the pianist.

The trio is filled out by stellar musicians. John Ore worked with
several of the best piano players of his time, including Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, Earl Hines, and most significantly Thelonious Monk, from 1960-63. Ron Jefferson and Ore both played with Lester Young, and Jefferson also backed up Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and Oscar Pettiford, among others. He was one of the original members of Les McCann's trio.

Ore has some solo space on both "Things We Did Last Summer" and "Blues for Lady J," and he takes full advantage of it. He also does some wonderful duet work with Redd on "Ready Freddie."

These tunes appear on a 10-inch LP, Introducing...Freddie Redd. There wasn't enough material for a 12-inch LP, so Prestige combined them with a Hampton Hawes session as Piano: East/West.

All can be heard on Spotify. I trust I don't need to tell you to listen. And if he gets booked at the Falcon, in my neck of the woods, I'm going.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 139: Jimmy Raney

Jimmy Raney was back in the studio twice in the winter of 1955, February 18 and March 8, with the same lineup. It included his mentor Hall Overton, who had not been part of his session from the previous August, which had featured two horns but no piano. One of the two had been Phil Woods, who went on, as we know, to have one of the most distinguished careers in jazz history, although he and Raney were not to record together again. The trumpet player for that earlier gig, John "Doc" Wilson, who is back for these next two, also went on to have a career no less admirable, if less acclaimed, as an arranger and educator.

Wilson's first recordings were on these Jimmy Raney sessions. He went on to record with Bob Brookmeyer and Gerry Mulligan, but recording with famous names was not to be his major contribution to the jazz world. And interestingly, though he played with one of jazz's great arrangers, he does not list Mulligan as one of his most important influences.

Wilson's first big time gig was with the interesting but short-lived bebop aggregation that Benny Goodman put together with Zoot Sims and Wardell Gray. He would learn a lot from Goodman, including, as he told Nate Guidry in a profile in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the way that

...when the band wasn't swinging the way he wanted, Benny would have a rehearsal early in the morning without the rhythm section so we could get our own swing thing going...I found later in my career that that's a great technique. If you've got a great rhythm section and the music isn't swinging, it's not the rhythm section's fault.
After Goodman, he played in bands led by Pete Rugolo, Neal Hefti and Claude Thornhill, all top arrangers. But he says his most rewarding experience was playing in the band led by Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan, who first made their reputation arranging in the golden years of swing, Sauter for Red Norvo, Benny Goodman and others, Finegan for Glenn Miller:
Those guys had some really novel ideas when it came to arranging. The effects of that band are still felt today. They used woodwind doubles, extra percussions that are now commonplace. But when they started doing it, it was new.
 The Sauter-Finegan orchestra  was swimming upstream against the rock and roll tide of the 1950s, and Wilson found himself swimming against the same tide in the 1960s, as the Beatles swept away everything in their path, including jazz. Wilson recalls

...things in New York were getting bad. Musicians were going from working six days a week to one or two days. I ran into Kenny Dorham working in a music store on 48th

Street. The great Kenny Dorham couldn't find work. I had my trumpet stolen, so I go into this store, and I'm in the basement trying these different horns, and here comes Kenny and he said, 'I heard some of those licks you were playing, and I had to come down and see who was playing that.'
Wilson went back to school, got a doctorate in music from NYU, and landed a teaching job at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1972. There wasn't much call for jazz in higher education then -- in 1972, only 15 colleges in the US offered degrees in jazz studies. But Wilson had his Ph.D., so he was able to  get hired as Duquesne's band director, conducting classical music and wind ensembles, and eventually to set up a jazz program.

Wilson and Raney mesh beautifully here. Raney had a wonderful sense of how to coordinate a guitar and horn, and it didn't hurt to have Rudy Van Gelder engineering the sessions. Replacing Bill Crow and Joe Morello are Teddy Kotick and Nick Stabulas.

The tunes are originals and standards on the first session, all standards on the second. Mostly Raney takes a fairly loose approach to the melodies, even on the head, and he makes it work. With the exception of "Someone to Watch Over Me," where the pure beauty of the melody engages him briefly.

I wanted to do a portrait of John "Doc" Wilson, but I can find no pictures of him anywhere on the Internet.

These sessions were combined on a 10-inch LP, and later included on the 12-inch Jimmy Raney - A.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 138: Gene Ammons

This is Gene Ammons's second recording session with this new group, so time to take a look at some of them. I can't find any information on Nat Howard, except to say that he sounds good here.

Henderson Chambers is one of those guys who straddled the fence between jazz and rhythm and blues, not that there was ever really much of a fence. He played with Al Sears and Tiny Bradshaw in the 30s, then Chris Columbus at the Savoy Ballroom in 1939-40, and then a few years with Louis Armstrong in the early 40s, followed by gigs with Don Redman, Sy Oliver, Lucky Millinder, and Count Basie. In the 50s, he played with Cab Calloway, Doc Cheatham, Duke Ellington, and Mercer Ellington. In the 60s, Ray Charles and Basie again. This was a cat who never lacked for work. He died in 1967.

I can't find much on Gene Easton, but he played with Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Sun Ra and Muhal Richard Abrams, so he had some range.

Earl Coleman was a singer in the Billy Eckstine mode, which as I've said, was going out of fashion by this time, although it had its adherents, including Mr. B. himself, who was still going strong into the 1980s, when he made a Grammy-winning recording with Benny Carter. Probably the most successful post-1940s work by a rich-toned baritone in the Eckstine tradition was Johnny Hartman's 1963 collaboration with John Coltrane.

Coleman recorded two tunes on this session with Ammons. One of them, "This is Always," a Harry Warren/Mack Gordon composition, was his attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle. He had had a minor hit with the song in 1947, but the success of that version may have had something to do with the other musicians on the date: Charlie Parker and Erroll Garner.

Probably the two instrumental tracks are the really memorable ones from this session, though. Ammons does a beautiful version of a great ballad: George Gershwin's "Our Love is Here To Stay."  The other tune, "Blues Roller" (or "Blue Roller") is not exactly a blues rock and roller, although Ammons does take off from an easy rolling ensemble part to do some old fashioned Texas tenor honking.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 137: Phil Woods

In this second session pairing Phil Woods and Jon Eardley, you can really hear why Woods was so often compared to Charlie Parker. There's that same feeling for the roots of swing with a daring tonality that pushes the edges of atonality, that same sense of the delight in adventure. But you can also hear how different they are.

And they'd have to be. Bird came from Kansas City, from Jay McShann's Kansas City blues band, and he felt the blues as only someone who grew up with the blues can. Woods was born in Massachusetts, took his first lessons from Lennie Tristano, and was schooled at Juilliard.

Like Bird, he paid his dues, but they were different dues. Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music, where he also studied, are not for slouches. They didn't teach jazz back in those days -- did not even have a saxophone major, so he studied clarinet. But they taught a lot.

He came out of Juilliard knowing a lot, but unprepared to be thrown into the sort of apprenticeship that Parker, or John Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman would have taken for granted. He had a lot to learn, and some of it he learned from the master: Charlie Parker. Here's a story he told to Marc Myers of JazzWax about those early days:

I had just graduated from Juilliard in 1952 and was playing at the Nut Club on Seventh Ave. and Sheridan Square in the Village. After all of that great education, here I was playing "Harlem Nocturne" 10 times a night...I wasn’t happy with myself. I was saying to myself, “My god, I’m a Juilliard graduate, and I can play great jazz, and here I am playing "Night Train" and "Harlem Nocturne." I didn’t like my mouthpiece. I didn’t like my reed. I didn’t like my horn. I didn’t even like the strap.

...One night somebody came into the club and said, “Hey, Charlie Parker’s playing across the street. He’s jamming.” ...I was going on my break so I rushed over. When I walked in, there was this 90-year old guy playing a piano that was only three octaves long [laughs]. His father was on drums using a tiny snare and little tiny pie plates for cymbals. And there was the great Charlie Parker—playing the baritone sax. It belonged to Larry Rivers, the painter. Parker knew me. He knew all the kids who were coming up.

...I said, “Mr. Parker, perhaps you’d like to play my alto?” He said, “Phil, that would be great. This baritone’s kicking my butt.” So I ran back across the street to the Nut Club and grabbed the alto sax that I hated. I came back and got on the bandstand, which was about as big as a coffee table. I handed my horn to Bird and he played "Long Ago and Far Away."...As I’m listening to him play my horn, I’m realizing ...nothing was wrong with the reed, nothing was wrong with the mouthpiece—even the strap sounded good. Then Parker says to me, “Now you play.” I said to myself, “My God.” So I did. I played a chorus for him... When I was done, Bird leaned over and said, “Sounds real good, Phil.” This time I levitated over Seventh Avenue to the Nut Club. And when I got back on the bandstand there, I played the shit out of Harlem Nocturne. That’s when I stopped complaining and started practicing. That was quite a lesson.
There's more than a little Parker in "Horse Shoe Curve," from the bluesy riff-based head through the blistering solos.  But it, and the rest of the session, are solid Phil Woods, and once again, he and Jon Eardley sound as perfectly matched as...well, as Bird and Diz. But it seems as though Woods could match up with anyone and sound great.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 136: James Moody

Seeing James Moody later in his career, after his seven-year stint in Vegas, was a show and a half. He was slick, his patter was hip and glib, he told jokes, he would have fit right in with Frank and Dean and Sammy. And did his musicianship suffer? You had better believe it did not.

What's the place of showmanship in art? In jazz? In modern jazz? The greatest showman (perhaps) in American show business history was also the greatest artist (beyond debate) in the history of American culture. By the time the beboppers came along, no one questioned the greatness of Armstrong, although they thought it was time for further explorations of the possibilities of jazz, but they did question his showmanship. Black entertainers in the first part of the last century played to cultural stereotypes. That doesn't mean they weren't good, or very good. Tim ("Kingfish") Moore was a comic genius, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson a gifted comic, but they're known for their iconic--and stereotypic--roles as a grifter and a butler. Tim Moore, in 1908, did a one-man show adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, for which he
painted one side of his face white and the other black, and turned one profile or the other to the audience depending on whether he was portraying Uncle Tom or Simon Legree. I would have paid to see that--certainly I would have paid the nickel that it probably cost then, especially because the bill would probably also have included Bill "Bojangles" Robinson or Eubie Blake or Bert Williams or even Bessie Smith.

Bill Robinson, still a legend among dancers, played a shuffling butler in Shirley Temple movies. Ethel Waters always played a maid. And Louis Armstrong, to some extent, played the smiling, always ingratiating stage Negro.

And by itself, there's nothing wrong with being ingratiating, or making people feel good. Billie Holiday recognized this, when she said of Armstrong, "Sure Pops Toms, but he Toms from the heart."

But it wasn't what the be boppers were about. They were intellectuals, they were serious artists, and they wanted their music to be recognized for the important art form that it was. 

They succeeded. Jazz is taught and studied at conservatories and universities, theory, appreciation and practice.

And they succeeded in another way. Serious artists are never going to be as entertaining as popular artists, on as broad a stage. Jazz has, by this juncture in the 21st century, taken its place alongside grand opera as the least listened-to music in America. 

But grand opera is not bad company.

Through all of this, showmanship never completely disappeared. Dizzy Gillespie knew its value. He created the stereotypical image of the 1940s hipster, with the bop beret, goatee and shades, which raised the visibility, and therefore the audience, of jazz. And it didn't hurt that he was one of the greatest artists of his or any other generation.

Showmanship in jazz takes many forms. Monk getting up and dancing around his piano bench was a great show, but it wasn't showmanship, it wasn't consciously playing to the audience. It was just Monk being Monk. Miles Davis, playing the role of the anti-showman, displaying his contempt for the audience by turning his back to them when he soloed...that was showmanship. And you can bet that Miles knew it.

And one went to see James Moody for the music, because he was one of the all time jazz greats, and one went away loving the Rat Pack stage patter, as well. And it was equally easy to love his vocal interpretation of King Pleasure/Blossom Dearie's interpretation of his "Moody's Mood for Love," in which he sang both parts ("and then the chick say..."). Or "Bennie's from Heaven."

Moody caught on quickly to the entertainment value of really good vocalese. He might have resented this messing around with his improvisation, but he was too musically hip and too show-biz savvy to do that. I'm reminded of the story Tito Puente told about how for a while he used to get irritated when people requested "Oye Como Va" by saying, "Hey, can you play that Santana tune?" His irritation, he said, lasted until the day he walked down to his mailbox and found his first royalty check for Santana's version. After that, it was "Hey, can you play 'Oye Como Va'?" "Oh, you mean that Santana tune!"

Which is why Moody has Eddie Jefferson singing on this early session. And why it sounds so good, as does the rest of the session.