Friday, December 28, 2018

Listening to Prestige 365: Tommy Flanagan

When you think about, it's amazing how many songs make up the canon of American popular music, and are there for interpretation by jazz musicians. The Great American Songbook? Well, not all the songs were great, and not all the tunesmiths were great. The Golden Age of American Song? It was maybe one of them. Not the age that Chuck Berry and Merle Haggard and Holland, Dozier and Holland lived in, but still a pretty impressive, populated by Olympians and journeymen. And a virtually inexhaustible well of material, some of it sublime, all of it at least pretty good, all of it grist for the improviser's mill. And every one of those tunes is someone's favorite. Someone courted to it cried to it, was conceived to it.

I started thinking about this as I listened to Tommy Flanagan play a bunch of standards, and I realized that I've now listened to the better part of twelve years' worth of music from Prestige artists, most of whom included at least some standards on every session, and with the probable exception of "In a Sentimental Mood," which somebody must have played, I believe that within the confines of this project, I have never heard any one of these songs before.

With the aid of, I did a quick survey.
"You Go to My Head" has a melody by J. Fred Coots, whose biggest hit, "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," was almost rejected by his publisher on the grounds that it was just a kids' song and no one would listen to it. "You Go to My Head" might not have bought Coots the mansion that "Santa" certainly could have, but it would have been good for a couple of nice cars and a weekend in Myrtle Beach. It became jazz standard as well as a pop standard, recorded by Bud Powell, Dave Brubeck, Al Haig, Lennie Tristano, Joe Bushkin, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Tete Montoliu, David
Lahm, Kenny Barron, Steve Allen, Ran Blake, Barry Harris, Eric Reed...and that just covers the pianists. But no other Prestige recordings (although Gene Ammons did record it for another label).

So there you have depth and breadth in jazz. You can go a dozen years with a prolific record label and still not begin to mine the possibilities of American song, and you can follow the same song through a plethora of artists and interpretations.

The same is true with nearly all the other ballads, although Gene Ammons would do "Born to Be Blue" on a Prestige album a couple of years hence. The only exception is a single recording of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," a song whose over 400 versions include three more on Prestige. Sonny Rollins and the Modern Jazz Quartet did it in 1953, for a 78 RPM release, Shirley Scott did it in 1959, and Lem Winchester and Oliver Nelson delivered their version just a month before Flanagan. And if you want a quick lesson in how differently great jazz artists can interpret a great composition, you've got it here.

This is a Moodsville release, and of course it's more than just a sentimental mood. This is three exquisite artists who are also consummate professionals. Roy Haynes brought 35 years of life and jazz experience to the session, and he was at the top of his game. Today, still playing, he brings 93 years of experience, and he's still at the top of his game.

Tommy Potter was still at the top of his, from the evidence of this album, but people were starting to DownBeat reader's poll, Potter did not get a single vote. Nor did Russell or Kotick.
forget. This was the age of the virtuoso bassist--Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford. Leroy Vinnegar and others on the West Coast. Potter, like Curly Russell and Teddy Kotick, was in at the creation of bebop. He could keep time when the responsibility for that was shifting more and more to the bassist, and he could handle the fast tempos and tricky rhythms of the beboppers. But he wasn't a soloist. In the 1959

The Tommy Flanagan Trio came out on Moodsville. Esmond Edwards produced.

It's not too late to give Listening to Prestige Vol. 3 as a holiday gift for the jazz fan who has Volumes 1 and 2! 

And for those who haven't, the complete set makes a fabulous gift!

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Listening to Prestige 364: Doug Watkins

Doug Watkins was one of the most prolific sidemen of the 1950s. He's been on 26 Prestige albums so far (including Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus) and countless more sessions on other labels. He was so respected as a bassist that when Charles Mingus took to the piano for 1961's Oh Yeah (Atlantic), he picked Watkins as his bassist.  But he almost never stepped out as a leader. He had done one album for a small label in 1956, and nothing more until this session.

What made him decide to put himself out in front?

A newfound passion. One of the most respected bassists in jazz, Watkins, like Mingus before him, turns the bass duties over to someone else, and takes on another instrument: his newfound passion, the cello.

How newfound was this passion? It's said that he picked it up three days before the recording date.

Which you can get away with if you're from Detroit, because that means you have a crew of homeboys who understand jazz, and who understand you, and who understand experimenting with different sounds, especially if one of them is Yusef Lateef, and the others are guys who've played with Lateef.

It's a shame that Detroit has come to be known as a blighted, crime-ridden city, because it has been a cultural capital.  It was a cauldron of jazz before jazz came to be recognized as America's seminal art form. And it produced the man who was arguably the greatest poet of his generation, Philip Levine.

Levine nurtured his art on the assembly lines of Detroit, just as Yusef Lateef did, and also in the jazz clubs of Detroit, where he heard the greats who made it their home. Poet T. R. Hummer, in an essay in the literary journal Blackbird, says that:

Some were classmates of his at Wayne University as it was called then: the guitarist Kenny Burrell was there, as were the pianists Tommy Flanagan and Bess Bonnier; they were close friends and peers of Levine’s then, as was the great and inimitable baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, and the drummer Elvin Jones.

And he heard the greats who passed through, like Clifford Brown, whom he remembered as Benny Golson did:
I Remember Clifford

Wakening in a small room,
the walls high and blue, one high window
through which the morning enters,
I turn to the table beside me painted a thick white. There instead
of a clock is a tumbler of water,
clear and cold, that wasn't there
last night. Someone quietly entered, and now I see the white door
slightly ajar and around three sides
the light on fire. I remember once
twenty-seven years ago walking
the darkened streets
of my home town when up ahead
on Joy Road at the Bluebird of Happiness
I heard over the rumble of my own head
for the first time the high clear trumpet
of Clifford Brown calling us all
to the dance he shared with us
such a short time. My heart quickened
and in my long coat, breathless
and stumbling, I ran
through the swirling snow
to the familiar sequined door
knowing it would open on something new.
Shortly before he died in 2015, Levine collaborated with jazz saxophonist Benjamin Boone for a unique album of poetry and jazz. Hummer writes:

Boone said that he had suggested to Levine that it would be more efficient (as well as less taxing: it must not be forgotten that Levine was in his 80s
when this work was done) to record the music, at least the basic rhythm tracks, first and let him record his tracks after.
Levine’s response? “Why would I want to do that, Ben? I’ve sat in recording studios reading my stuff to myself plenty of times. I want to work with the musicians! That will be fun!”
And so the poet and the players convened session after session in a studio in Fresno, California, making the recordings. Another poet—especially one Levine’s age, who was also, by a certain point in the extended recording process, not in good health—might have found the lengthy, nitpicky process onerous. Levine loved it. He spent hours doing what is done in studios: sitting in a booth on a stool wearing headphones and staring at a microphone, recording take after take until everyone is satisfied, and then moving on to the next track. He stayed at it faithfully for the requisite long stretches.
The mixing of the album was not completed till after Levine died. When it came to mixing "I Remember Clifford," Boone was faced with a dilemma, according to Hummer:
For this poem, Boone composed a melody that is strongly reminiscent of, but not repetitious of, Golson’s composition. Anyone who knows Brown’s music is likely to know Golson’s composition, and so will be struck, as I was, by the extraordinarily tactful, effective work Boone did as a composer here.

But he did another excellent thing as well. Levine was always in the Fresno studio with basically the same core group of musicians. Boone is a saxophonist specializing in soprano and alto, each of which he plays wonderfully on most of these recordings (seriously, the man has deep and abiding chops; do yourself a favor and give him a listen) and he did the solo work on the original track. But as he listened to the playback of “I Remember Clifford” in the studio, and again and again at home, he found himself wondering, “Why is there a saxophone soloing in this? Clifford Brown played trumpet!”

“It was a tough decision, in terms of my own ego,” Boone told me. But in the end he contacted, through a friend of a friend, the trumpeter Tom Harrell. Harrell, now seventy-one, is a master musician who has played with just about everyone, from Stan Kenton and Woody Herman to Horace Silver on down. Who better to channel Clifford Brown?
So that's another part of Detroit. But here, for this session, the Motor City is represented by Lawson
on cello and Lateef on oboe as well as flute, so they're stepping outside of the jazz box. Detroiter Hugh Lawson is the pianist. a cat who came from Detroit with Lateef and spent many years with him before moving on to Sun Ra and others.  Detroiter Herman Wright takes the bass duties, and New Yorker Lex Humphries is the drummer, in his first session for Prestige.

They play three standards, two originals by Lateef and one ("Andre's Bag") by Watkins. The album, on New Jazz, would take its title, Soulnik, from a Lateef composition. Prestige would later rerelease it under Lateef's name as Imagination, but it's very much Watkins' session, but the creativity and versatility on display here in Watkins' pizzicato cello would get little chance to grow and blossom. This would be his second and last album as leader; in 1962 he died in an automobile accident.

Esmond Edwards produced.

It' not too late to give Listening to Prestige Vol. 3 as a Christmas gift for the jazz fan who has Volumes 1 and 2! 

And for those who haven't, the complete set makes a fabulous gift!

Friday, December 21, 2018

Listening to Prestige 363: Bud Freeman and Shorty Baker

I suppose one could look ar this period as sort of an interregnum between John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Dolphy had actually made his Prestige debut the previous month, but although it was titled Outward Bound, it wasn't as outward as Dolphy was going to go, and though his era was poised to explode, it hadn't quite done so yet.

One could look at it that way, but one would be wrong. Jazz doesn't begin and end with the superstars, and it doesn't exist only on the cutting edge. Or maybe it's always the cutting edge, because you're out there every night taking risks, which is the definition of improvisation, whether you're John Coltrane playing every note there is at the same time or Ahmad Jamal playing cocktail hour at the Pershing Hotel for salesmen who don't care that you're giving
lessons in the possibilities of jazz improvisation, or Henry "Red" Allen playing for the lunch crowd at the Metropole. And if Prestige in the 1960s is remembered more for Dolphy than for the Swingville and Bluesville and Moodsville recordings,  these labels recognized the fact that jazz was living history, and the people who had made that history were still living and playing, which made it a lot more than just history.

Bud Freeman came out of the Chicago high school band that became a legend, the Austin High School Gang with Jimmy McPartland and Frank Teschemaker, and he grew to be known as the master of the swing era tenor saxophone. In

fact, he was one of the original jazz tenormen, since it was not an instrument common to that style of music, and he developed a sound all his own--Lester Young counted Freeman as one of his early influences. He never lacked for work, or for people who wanted to record him, be they major labels (Columbia), top independents (Bethlehem), labels not much given to jazz (Dot), or more obscure small labels. This would be his only recording for Prestige.

It was one of the very few small group recordings Shorty Baker would make for any label, and the only one where he got featured billing. Baker was a respected section man who played off and on with Duke Ellington's orchestra during these years, and he makes the most of his chance in the spotlight. You wouldn't be looking for this album to fill out your Shorty Baker collection, because you won't have a Shorty Baker collection, bur he plays well enough on this session to make you glad you've had a chance to hear him.

Claude Hopkins was brought to Prestige by Chris Albertson to play on Lonnie Johnson's first session, and was brought back to make an album under his own name, which featured J. C. Heard on drums. George Duvivier, of course, is an old friend.

Like most of the Swingville sessions, these are musicians who got their start in an earlier era, but didn't stay there--in fact Freeman, though he continued to play in a traditional setting, with Eddie Condon, with Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart's World's Greatest Jazzband, and with his own groups, had studied for a while in the late 1940s with Lennie Tristano. Freeman, in a 1980 conversation with radio interviewer Studs Terkel, said "My old fans would prefer that I play the way I played a hundred years ago, but I prefer to play the way I feel, and I feel that I'm improving."

The Swingville album is called The Bud Freeman All Stars Featuring Shorty Baker.

Listening to Prestige Vol. 3 makes a great Christmas gift for the jazz fan who has Volumes 1 and 2! 

And for those who haven't, the complete set makes a fabulous gift!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Listening to Prestige 362: Shakey Jake

In presenting Shakey Jake (also known as Shakey Jake Harris, to distinguish him from the other Shakey Jake--yes, there was another one) continued three Prestige blues traditions. The first was to produce strikingly good records by first rate blues musicians. The second, unfortunately, was to consistently back the wrong horses. Shakey Jake would make two albums for Prestige Bluesville, then only three more, and a small handful of singles, over the next quarter century, so while he had the chops to ensure longevity, he wasn't able to break through the way his nephew Magic Sam did. A good part of his career was as a harmonica-playing sideman to Sam and other Chicago blues acts.

The third Prestige blues tradition was experimentation, mixing traditional blues artists with Prestige jazz artists, and if the results weren't a commercial breakthrough, they're artistically satisfying. The jazz voices are Jack McDuff and Bill Jennings, No drummer, which is interesting, because Jake comes out of the Chicago blues tradition, not the Delta, and he's certainly accustomed to working with some serious percussion. So here we have a most unusual conjoining of traditions: the folk blues sound of a very raw voice and harmonica with the modern but eclectic sensibilities of two jazzmen. Both McDuff and Jennings have played plenty of rhythm and blues, but that's not what they're doing here. They're finding new ways to augment a basic blues style. Especially Jennings. Every time he contributes a lick you find yourself listening to him, and yet he's not taking you away from the song as a whole. A pretty damn good trick. It's too bad that Shakey Jake didn't make it bigger. It's almost inexplicable that Bill Jennings didn't make it bigger.

The 45 RPM release from this session was "My Foolish Heart"
and "Jake's Blues," interesting choices. "My Foolish Heart" is, of course, not the syrupy Victor Young ballad from a movie of the same name, a tearjerker with Susan Hayward. And you know that comedy routine about what you can and can't do in the blues? You can't drive a Volvo or a BMW, and "persons with names like Sierra, Sequoia, Auburn, and Rainbow can't sing the Blues no matter how many men they shoot in Memphis." Well, you probably can't build a blues around a phrase like "My Foolish Heart," either, and even Shakey Jake doesn't altogether succeed, although he growls it like Screamin' Jay Hawkins and manages to be pretty entertaining. The same comedy routine says you can get a good blues name out of a physical infirmity, but Shakey Jake got his name a different way: from his fondness for shaking the dice. Reportedly, when he cut his first record, he didn't get paid for the session, but made up for it by winning $700 off the record label's owner shooting craps.

"Jake's Blues" is one of three instrumentals on the record--"Just Shakey" and "Bluffin' and Puffin' (possibly "Huffin' and Puffin'") are the others. I love all of them. The three instruments are great together. Jake is a decent harmonica player, magnificently supported by McDuff and Jennings--again, especially Jennings.

The Bluesville album was titled Good Times. Esmond Edwards produced.

Listening to Prestige Vol. 3 makes a great Christmas gift for the jazz fan who has Volumes 1 and 2! 

And for those who haven't, the complete set makes a fabulous gift!

Listening to Prestige 361: Frank Wess

Frank Wess is back four days later, this time without Joe Newman, but with two thirds of the rhythm section from the previous gig, and this time the session is directed toward Moodsville, rather than Swingville.

Was Moodsville a dilution of the jazz mission of Prestige Records? Some still say yes. Chris Albertson, who produced a number of albums for Bob Weinstock during this period, has said  "When I produced a session, it was a Prestige session--whether it came out on Prestige, Prestige Bluesville or Prestige Swingville, made no difference."

This album provides some evidence for the "Jackie Gleason clone" theory, if you're really looking for it, but not much. It's a good bet that the material was chosen with the awareness that this would go out on Moodsville. The songs are all dreamy ballads, even the original Wess tune.

But it provides overwhelming evidence for the "this is real jazz" theory, by being real jazz.  Wess and Flanagan find the beauty in these ballads, and they never lose it, but they also find their jazz soul, their openings for improvisation.They don't need to sentimentalize the ballads, because the ballads themselves take care of that, but they are never insensitive to their beauty.

His own original, "Rainy Afternoon," needs to take a back seat to no other tune for dreamy beauty. Wess plays it on the saxophone, with all the smoky lyricism that instrument can provide.

"It's So Peaceful in the Country" was written by Alec Wilder, whose book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, did as much as anything else you can name to create the canon we now know as the Great American Songbook, and who contributed significantly to that canon as a composer/lyricist. This particular song, introduced by Mildred Bailey in 1941, has never attracted a huge volume of jazz improvisers (Second Hand Songs has it at 51st on the list of most recorded songs  from that year), but it's had its share, starting with Mundell Lowe in 1956. Tommy Flanagan opens it with a sort of bluesy vamp, which suggests a certain urban touch, but Wess's flute moves it gently but firmly, and without irony, into the realm of bucolic peace.

"But Beautiful" is a Jimmy Van Heusen melody that lives up to its title. Tommy Flanagan is given an extended solo to start this one off, and perhaps because it's a much more widely recorded tune (6th most recorded of tunes from 1947), both he and Wess allow themselves a lot more latitude to improvise, but they keep it pretty, and they keep it interesting. Wess on flute again.

"Stella by Starlight" is by movie composer Victor Young, so you'd think it would be a movie theme, and it sort of is and sort of isn't. The melody was adapted by Young from music he wrote for a film called The Uninvited. Apparently at some point when he was writing the lyrics, someone must have pointed out to lyricist Ned Washington that at one point in the movie, Ray Milland tells Gail Russell (Stella) that he's serenading her by starlight, so Washington quick had to write that into the lyric--which did not come right away. It was introduced by Young as an instrumental piece in 1944, the year of the movie's release (and it's the third most recorded of all 1944 songs*), and the lyric didn't come along till 1947, when Frank Sinatra recorded it. It's one of those unusual pieces that's had a lot more instrumental than vocal recordings, not all of them jazz by a long shot. After Young introduced it, it became an orchestral staple until both Sinatra and Harry James recorded it in 1947, and it entered the jazz book when Charlie Parker recorded it with strings. Wess switches to the tenor saxophone for this one, with all the Ben Webster-type beauty that the instrument is capable of.

“Gone With the Wind" is decidedly not a movie theme, having been composed by Allie Wrubel a good three years before the movie. Wess stays with the tenor, and gives this one a more jaunty reading.

I won't go through every tune, but they all create a mood, and if you're not in the mood for a mood, but just want to hear some fine jazz, they give you plenty of that.

Since at this juncture the stars of the "Ville" recordings on Prestige are the labels themselves, this album is just called The Frank Wess Quartet.  Esmond Edwards produced. "Rainy Afternoon" was released as one side of a 45.

* The most covered song of 1944 is "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," but schmaltzy "Stella By Starlight" gets beaten out for the number two slot by one of the hippest tunes ever written, Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight."

Listening to Prestige Vol. 3 makes a great Christmas gift for the jazz fan who has Volumes 1 and 2! 

And for those who haven't, the complete set make a fabulous gift!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Listening to Prestige 360: Joe Newman

Swingville has done pretty well with recruiting Basie musicians and alumni, and why not? If there's a more swinging ensemble anywhere. I'd like to see it. Joe Newman had been with Basie on and off since 1943. Frank Wess and Eddie Jones were part of that 1950s ensemble which achieved popularity but not much critical acclaim (a shadow of its former Lester Young-dominated self, playing outdated music) but has since been recognized for the sterling aggregation that it was. Oliver Jackson never played in a Basie band, but surely this was an oversight. With credentials including  the Metropole, Teddy Wilson, Charlie
Shavers, Buck Clayton, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Budd Johnson, Sy Oliver, he would have been right at home with Basie.

If you're  going to put together a group of Basie sidemen doing an outside gig, you're not going to have the Count at the piano, and if you're not going to get Count 1.1 Nat Pierce, as other Count's Men groups have done, then Tommy Flanagan is not a bad choice at all. Though a thoroughgoing Detroit bebopper, he's from that generation of piano players whose earliest influences were Art Tatum, Nat "King" Cole and Teddy Wilson, and he would go on to spend several years as Ella Fitzgerald.

Newman and his group are certainly not trying to escape their Basie association. The songs are all from the Basie repertoire, two of them ("Jive at Five" and "Taps Miller") composed by the Count himself, or else bluesy originals by Newman that would fit right into Basie's wheelhouse. But a quintet is going to be a lot different from the Basie big band, and although you can hear Basie in their individual voices, especially Joe Newman's, and Wess and Newman playing together can create a big sound, you hear a lot more than that. The soloists, with room to stretch out ("Taps Miller" is over eight minutes, "Wednesday's Blues" more than nine) move very naturally into that swing-to-bop territory, and especially on the Newman originals, all of them give some very interesting interpretations of the blues.

The Swingville album is titled Jive at Five.

Look for Listening to Prestige Volume 3: 1957-58 on Amazon!

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Listening to Prestige 359; Gigi Gryce

This is the second of Gigi Gryce's three albums for Prestige, all with essentially the same group (Julian Euell replaces Reggie Workman on bass). Gryce clearly liked playing with these guys, and they are a classroom lesson in guys you haven't heard of, or have barely heard of, who never broke through to the top ranks.

It makes a difference if you can get your name attached to an album as leader, and Richard Williams only managed that once, on the Candid label.
Candid might have been a successful small jazz label. It was started recording exec Archie Bleyer, who had a good thing going with Cadence Records, and he got Nat Hentoff to run it. Williams brought in Gryce-mates Richard Wyands and Reggie Workman, and Hentoff himself produced the session, but in spite of being recorded at the Nola Penthouse Studio on the top floor of the Steinway building, the record never got off the ground, and Wiliams was never able to repeat it. He continued work regularly, most often with Charles Mingus and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band, and his versatility not only got him work in Broadway pit bands, but on some classical recordings. He gives a good accounting of himself here, especially on the Gryce composition, "Minority."

Richard Wyands was another who worked regularly, including a ten-year stint with Kenny Burrell, but also managed to stay under the radar of public acclaim.He was originally a Californian, born and rised in Oakland, where he got his firat musical experience, and his first major expoaure as the intermission pianist at San Francisco's Black Hawk club. He recalled, in an interview with Ted Panken in 2000, learning from the great pianists like Art Tatum who played the Black Hawk:
He told me, “You can’t compete with me anyhow, but keep it up.”  He encouraged me a lot.  No one can compete with him, no one in the world!  But he was very nice about it.  In fact, he was glad I was there, because he would talk to me while he was playing.  I’d sit right up there by the piano and he knew I was sitting there, even though he couldn’t see too well at that time, and he would tell me what he was doing and what key he was going into.  But when he came off the bandstand, I had to get on, so we really didn’t have much time to talk in between — not really.  But just sitting there watching him was quite an experience.
Leaving California for New York, he played some gigs and got a few recordings before hooking up with Gryce, a time he remembers fondly:
Somehow I met Gigi Gryce, and he was organizing a band along with Reggie Workman, Richard Williams and Mickey Roker.  We rehearsed and we worked at the old Five Spot, different places in Brooklyn... the group with Gigi was a great group.  I really loved it.  We had so much fun.  It was a happy group.  Extremely happy.  I’d never been in a group like that before ever, anywhere, where everything was just so happy and musical.  Happy musically and otherwise.  Everybody got along with each other, there was no arguing and fighting, no egos.  One of the best groups I ever worked with.  Then Gigi disappeared from the scene and we were all on our own.  So I just freelanced around New York.
There are only two Gryce originals on this session. The others are familiar standards, and one odd duck: the old folk song, "Frankie and Johnny." This is not usual fare for a modern jazz group, though we have seen it before, with Gil Evans and "Ella Speed." They have some fun with this one, starting out playing the melody in almost a honky tonk style, then opening up with the improvisations.

The Gryce originals are "Nica's Tempo," one of the many tributes the jazz baroness who nurtured Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, a nice tune that's still played and recorded, and "Minority," one of Gryce's most famous compositions. This session was his third recording of it, and there have been close to 200 others, including landmark versions by Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans that preceded this one.

Esmond Edwards produced. The Hap'nin's was released on New Jazz.