Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Shufflin' Off...

The winter months on Vashon Island aren't quite this eventful usually (snow foolin'), but it doesn't take a Brahmin to realize that Global Horning might displace migrant aliens along the Northern Tier too. As we head into 2011, our Bisontenniel year, I wanted all you roving I Witnesses out there--shufflin' and scufflin' and hoofin' it Malaysia to Thalia, Pamplona to the Pampas--to know I have a stack of buffalo chips that I'll be sharing with you over the months to come. And that's no bull.

But enough yak from me. Happy Gnu Year!

(And thanks to Steven Fuller for the photo.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pennies for the Old Guys

I was on the road for several days, with time to contemplate the fitful hours, and the major events of several months...
Bud Shank, 82, sailing his alto into the variegated sunset. Elegant Hank Jones tiptoeing away as well, ending at 91 the brilliant Jones Bros. era. Dave Brubeck celebrating his 90th birthday for a week or three. Genial James Moody uncommonly silent and withdrawn, succumbing to cancer at 86--then days later, nearly unnoticed, Clark Terry tootling quietly past his 90-year mark. Tony Bennett easing back a bit, 84-years-young and still radiant with Astoria-Italian soul. Randy Weston standing tall at 84, for Duke and Monk and stride and, always, Africa. Benny Golson, a spry 81, blues-marching on with slick chick Betty and funky Killer Joe. Sonny Rollins and his sax blowing more angularly year after year--a mere kid of 80...

I look around imagining I might well discover centenarian Benny Carter still composing and conducting and playing his tempered alto, with Johnny Hodges and Charlie Parker taking note(s)! The stalwart giants of Modern Jazz are still leaving tracks, still making their marks. I'm very happy to add that the above rollcall of musicians represents Jazz masters I fortuitously got to see and hear live (all save Golson and Weston), whether in concerts or clubs--or in the case of Moody and Terry, in separate performances with the fine Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (add Jimmy Heath to that select group), during which the featured gents all showed themselves to be moving more slowly but staying cheerful and witty, still able to get around on their horns--even two at a time in Clark's inimitable fashion. (And the only mumbling was intentional.)

Long-lived and alert, secure in their individual approaches to playing, without becoming slaves to their own styles... I think of poet William Butler Yeats aging into greatness, writing better and better the older he got, as opposed to the more typical range of artists who make a splash when young but cannot progress much beyond that (Hemingway and Faulkner, Eliot and Frost). Which values growth (or change at least) and staying power over instant, flash-in-the-pan success--Matisse or Picasso, say, instead of Warhol and Pop Art, or most of the Abstract Expressionists. (I actually revere all the names I've dropped here, but who would dispute the locked-in, long dying fall of many artistic careers?)

But getting back to Jazz, every one of the musicians mentioned above released praiseworthy albums in the 21st century's first ten years. Bud Shank was a whirlwind, recording almost yearly, challenging himself right through to his final CD, Fascinating Rhythms. Every Hank Jones album was a blessing, but especially his separate tributes to brother Thad (with brother Elvin assisting) and to their father. Brubeck alternated quartet projects (London Flat, London Sharp) and solo piano treats like the grace-filled Indian Summer and his unique reminiscence of WWII music called Private Brubeck Remembers. Moody went out with a dual bang, gifting us with sax-and-rhythm sets featuring Kenny Barron and stripped-down titles 4A and 4B. (Hank and Moody also teamed up for Our Delight, which I had missed but now have on order for some suitable seasonal cheer.)

Perennial off-the-radar brass man Clark Terry had two CDs I'm on the trail of, too (grammatical or no), his Porgy and Bess using the Miles/Gil Evans charts but with Clark on flugelhorn, and One on One's duets between Clark and 14 different pianists. Tony sang Duets too, soundly trouncing the feeble Sinatra sets, and more recently joined the current Basie "ghost" aggregation for some Christmas Jazz--while Benny recalled Art Farmer and Curtis Fuller for a near-Jazztet album, then gathered a tight new crew for his New 'Tet CD. Randy took us back to Africa with The Storyteller, and Sonny took us out on tour with his Road Songs, not to mention the harrowing live set recorded in Boston a few days after 9-11. And I'm ignoring all the reissues and special compilations and retrospective box sets each of these gentlemen merited.

Yes, it was a decade of grandeur for the great elders of Jazz...

Yet as a flailing 67-year-old who has survived (survived so far, that is; and knock wood for me, would you?) too-early prostate cancer and now the shaky onset of Parkinson's, I can only marvel at the excellent genes and general good health of so many of the music's distinguished seniors. As 2010 shudders and fades, I'm haunted by shabby, two-cents-worth "Intimations of Mortality" (no Immortality per Wordsworth seems likely), bumping up against Jazz's continuing... call it "Integrations of Improvising," the brain and the fingers staying agile, the breath available, each player's place in the scheme continually being discovered and claimed, and all present then "articulating sweet sounds together."

Yeats got it wrong, you see: Our best retain all conviction, full of passionate intensity right to the end. All unknowing perhaps, these aged Jazzmen have held to their roles and played their parts:

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

No musician, I pray that I too may be--dying young or old--another such foolish, passionate man.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Thrush Hour

Consider this a sidebar to my previous posts on Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca, with Part 3 still in the works...

Lately I've been reading two newish Jazz books, and I recommend both--Stan Kenton: This Is an Orchestra! (University of North Texas Press) by British Kenton specialist Michael Sparke, and the massive tome titled A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers (Pantheon) by canny and witty collector-critic Will Friedwald. Sparke plays it straight, telling the long and convoluted Kenton story through dozens of interviews with band members and others, while Friedwald's two hundred essays are opinionated, rich with anecdotes and the occasional pun, and usually offer complete career overviews as well as detailed analysis of individual discs (whether 78s, 45s, LPs, or CDs). Both works are excellent, invigorating reads, and that's true whether you dip in or plow straight through, though Friedwald's 800 pages might take a while!

Anyway, I mention them together thanks to the small overlap of the Kenton organization's famed threesome of female vocalists--Anita O'Day, June Christy, and Chris Connor, the great "band thrushes," as Friedwald calls them in retro slang--each of whom gets her due in both books. And here's the fun coincidence, one of those serendipitous events you just have to embrace. The other day, idly thinking about Jazz vocals, having read Will's first 25 pieces which included both Christy and Connor, I wandered into a local used CD store and found that some fan had just unloaded a slew of female vocal albums, and sure enough there were several fine Jazz items I didn't already have, by the Kenton three plus Blossom Dearie, Ella and Billie live at Newport, and more. When I read in the booklet notes that O'Day's 1959 Sings the Winners had Kamuca and Perkins side by side on tenor, well, it seemed like some cosmic alignment.

(But I soon noticed major discographical confusion. The reissue CD from 1990 says the 12 original tracks feature a Russ Garcia Orchestra, arrangements by Russ and Marty Paich, Perk and Richie present... but the comprehensive O'Day Mosaic set book from 1999 lists a whole different cast for The Winners sessions, and the mistaken personnel instead correct for 1960 sessions led by Bill Holman. There are other discrepancies too--for example, Barney Kessel is credited as "coordinator" for the Garcia orchestra, but his name does not appear in either list of personnel playing; and the facts of some other session dates are also in dispute. Assuming the 1960 date correct means that Perkins and Kamuca aren't here after all.)

Before discussing any one album, let's deal with the silly matter of, as some Kenton dissenters are wont to say, "they all sound/sing alike"--a canard as baseless (and bassless) as the belief that Kenton's recordings "never swung." Just as the latter statement is demonstrably false, with his mid-Fifties ensembles and some later groups too all working the brilliant charts by Bill Holman, Gerry Mulligan, and others, and swinging their collective assets quite convincingly, so too are the women distinct and distinctive. That's not to deny their similarities, but to give each her particular due.

Anita O'Day was reputed to be mentally tough, aggressively independent, a risktaker (drugs and all); and that's how she sounds: like a real character, and with acquired extra character in her voice, ranging higher than the other two (though I'd guess them all to be approximately altos). Here was a white chick able to sing a ballad with a Holiday lilt and whine (gorgeous takes on "Whisper Not" and "Early Autumn"), scat nearly as freely as Ella ("Sing, Sing, Sing"), and show as much sass as Sarah ("What's Your Story, Morning Glory"; would you please "Peel Me a Grape"?). Anita could speed the beat or shift across it at will, take almost any lyric and play with it--or even play it straight, her pipes another instrument in the arrangement, trading fours with the other horns; check her great version of "Four Brothers" for one example among many.

So Anita shone most brightly when her interest and playfulness were engaged (caught in the light O'Day, so to speak); but with an indifferent lyric or a tame tune ("Ivy," anyone?), she might just sound bored ("The Rock and Roll Waltz," perhaps?), a thoroughbred irritably going through her paces. From The Winners it's the difference between her fumbling of "Frenesi" and her cheeky mastery of "The Peanut Vendor," which you might expect her to sneer at instead. And on her Pick Yourself Up album the listener goes straight from an awkward and mannered "Sweet Georgia Brown" to the smile-on-her-face total fun of "I Won't Dance," the very next track.

By my lame and limping analogy, June Christy in contrast--though a well-groomed filly indeed--was more workhorse than racehorse, laboring in the Kenton stable for six or seven years, from Tampico all the way across the alley to the Alamo. June sang more gently, maybe lazily, always a bit back of the beat, and often sounding as though she might happily settle for slightly flat (I'm attempting accurate description here, not negative criticism), all of this stuff comprising her own inherent style, vulnerable but knowing too. Just as June seemed shy and introverted, more stay-at-home than party girl, so too her voice seemed softer and sweeter, as befitting the best-looking bird on this particular branch, less sophisticated and more domesticated. She wasn't just Gone for the Day (one album's title), she seemed halfway out the door always, ready to retire from performing yet reluctantly pressing on.

That June's first album, Something Cool, was also her best just exacerbated the problem. Her regular arranger/producer Pete Rugolo tried everything he could dream up, but the results were always hit or Misty Miss Christy (the second LP), where she was infectiously happy for "Sing Something Simple," then simply flat for "This Year's Kisses"; pitching perfectly with "I Didn't Know About You" and, of all things, "'Round Midnight," then done in by Rugolo's melodramatic, weird-instruments derangement of "The Wind." More typical for this and her other albums were "There's No You " and "That's All," mid-tempo songs adrift in the cool studio air. Musicians approved her, but she didn't want the pressure; you could say this frail Shirley added Luster to every album she cut, from June to Christmas and beyond, but a solo career lasting just a decade-and-some was enough.

Chris Connor kept at it, whispering a Broadway lullaby to some Ronnie or other and resisting the lush life, until her voice was permanently stilled in 2009. That works out to well over 60 years of cheerful chirping ("Little Jazzbird" was one of her favorite Gershwin discoveries)--but, really, one could argue that only her albums for Bethlehem and then Atlantic, 15 or so recorded approximately 1953-62, belong in the Hall of Dames (to coin a Friedwaldism). If the cats and kiddies thought Tough Auntie-Mama Anita too hot and scattered, and Tender Mama June too cool and depressured, then Chris the Goldenlocks somehow managed to keep the pot at a just-right low-boil. She admired Sinatra's ability to tell a story as he sang, so she followed suit. Anita was a Jazz musician, an improvisor determined to mess with the tune; June listened to the lyrics and let the melody go; Chris's craft was to stay alert to both, altering as needed and at will--or, maybe, as Will would approve. (Connor and Friedwald were friends from the Eighties on, and he helped her choose 40 songs for the Atlantic-albums anthology, rightly named Warm Cool.)

So where Anita romps and wallops, and June simmers and soothes, Chris learned to drift and haunt, yet swing and sizzle too--the premiere voice among the three, even if O'Day worked harder to achieve more acclaim (while Christy just went quiet). And what a throatsome pleasure, slightly husky (like a young Bacall before her voice changed), able to half-talk the lyrics or stay with her warm vibrato, then easily drop into mellow blue notes, her tenor-saxy lower register only as flattened as she allowed (until her later years, anyway). During the Atlantic sojourn Chris cut several signature performances, little-known tunes usually: "When the Wind Was Green," "I Wonder What Became of Me," "Lilac Wine," "High on a Windy Hill," "Oh, You Crazy Moon," and umpteen others. (Go with the Warm Cool set for a splendid intro.)

But to wrap up this survey I thought it might be instructive to pit the thrushes against one another with songs sung in common. Anita and Chris both do upbeat versions of "I Get a Kick Out of You," Anita adding the uncommon opening verse, then prancing with a smile but no sweat through Cole Porter's lyrics, even on a second run-through, letting Billy May's orchestra do most of the work... so not one of her cardinal, adventurous efforts. Chris on the other hand has the benefit of John Lewis, Oscar Pettiford, and Connie Kay all running through the tune (running, not walking) while her vocal slipstreams along above them; a strikingly different if not perfect performance, the chanteuse herself not yet in total control.

For a more modern take, compare the same two on Horace Silver's "Senor Blues": both arrangements follow the circling Latin beat, but Connor's sways rather than dances, moving at half-speed, while Ms. O'Day (backed by Gary McFarland's band) brazenly power-shouts right along with the Gil Evans-styled rising and repeating brass, but her reading of the words suffers accordingly. And even if a bit less exciting, Chris's voice sounds just so luscious and lovely... who'd really want to resist?

June gets her say on the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away from Me," singing in a higher key or register than the arrangements usually force her into; I say that knowing well that Rugolo would be setting her at the sexy contralto level that made her famous. But up here, in husband Bob Cooper's arrangement (backed by ace West Coast players), June can still employ her full voice, and with no chance of going flat; even the downward lines are sung as rising. So: a beautiful example of Christy at her best. Connor's playful version from her Gershwin Almanac set rides lower, at a less wide-open emotional level, but none the worse for it. And since hers was recorded some years before June's, it could well be that Christy and Cooper had Connor in their hind sights.

I'd opine that the three band thrushes all chirp most excellently depending on the song and the circumstance. Though I favor Chris finally, I can still appreciate the joyous vocalizing of her friendly rivals. If Stan Kenton had done nothing else, the Jazz world would still owe him for showcasing and so helping to launch the remarkable careers of warm cool Connor, something cool Christy, and too cool O'Day.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Johnny Came Lately

Film music grandmaster Elmer Bernstein made his bones in the mid-1950s by following the trail first blazed by Alex North, to blend Jazz instruments and Jazz composition elements into noirish movie scores. Bernstein wrote the music for The Man with the Golden Arm, Sweet Smell of Success, his non-film album Blues and Brass, the later Some Came Running and Walk on the Wild Side, and more. Piggybacking on Bernstein's style and success, television cop shows like M Squad and Peter Gunn began using Jazz too, and then the producers of a Gunn rival called Staccato (broadcast in 1959) hired Bernstein to work his magic once more.

Set in New York's Greenwich Village, the one-season, 27-episode Staccato series starred vibrant and intense young actor John Cassavetes in his one and only series television role, as a private eye who'd rather play Jazz piano and hang out at his friend Waldo's namesake nightclub than go down the Mean Streets. But some other friend's problem, some stranger's need for help, always pulls him back into action. And with Cassavetes, one really does mean action: he strides everywhere, bursts into rooms, charges up and down stairs, makes snap decisions, talks tough and fast and gets clobbered often.

The show's opening credit sequence each week set the tone, offering 30 seconds of John running pell-mell through the darkened streets and alleys of the Village; and that frantic pace continued through 25-minute stories that seemed to cram-in twice that in plot and suspense and sudden action. Rising young actors and familiar character players guested--Michael Landon, Gena Rowlands (soon Cassavetes' wife), Alexander Scourby, Elizabeth Montgomery (didn't twitch her nose, though), Jack Weston, Susan Oliver, Geraldine Brooks, Frank DeKova, and others, all of them hurting or angry or on the sly.

Staccato was truly exciting, and a total contrast to the more laid-back Peter Gunn with sleepy Craig Stevens. The Gunn show's success was largely due to Henry Mancini's score, delivered by top-flight West Coast players--plus lovely Lola Albright as the chanteuse at Mother's club. But Bernstein's music had more of an edge and truly was more jaggedly "staccato," with lots of brass and driving rhythms played by many of the same studio-ace musicians, guys like Shelly Manne, Barney Kessel, Pete Candoli, Johnny Williams (then a Jazz pianist, later to become film score giant John W. of Jaws/Star Wars/Superman/Indiana Jones fame), Reds Mitchell and Norvo, Ronnie Lang, the Nash brothers, et al.

I was 16 when Staccato had its one year, and I watched every week. The show didn't make it, disappeared into the NBC vaults, and was forgotten. Cassavetes shaped a maverick career, creating his own tough and independent films as both actor and director. Bernstein moved on to score, I don't know, maybe a couple hundred other movies ranging from The Ten Commandments to The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird to The Great Escape, Animal House to Ghostbusters, and Hawaii to Airplane! So fifty years busily synch-sprocketed by.

I held on to my copy of the Staccato soundtrack and played it occasionally, wondering if the show would ever resurface. A few years back, I noticed an eBay auction selling videotape copies of the series, so I bid and won somebody's private bootleg stash. I watched maybe half of the tapes, slightly disappointed that the show didn't quite match up to my rosy memories, but mostly just bummed by the low-quality duplication. Still, I vowed I'd really dig in some weekend...

Then a month ago I discovered an ad for the newly and legally reissued, 3 DVD set of all 27 episodes of (now retitled) Johnny Staccato: Television's Jazz Detective. I fired off my $20... and have been in TV heaven ever since I tore off the plastic wrap and spun the first DVD. The show was, and still is, excellent, blending film noir, timeless plots, philosophical questions, droll comedy, Beat Generation shenanigans, social injustice, on-location photography in the Big Apple (a few exotic destinations too), and yes, loads of action.

Oh, and some damn fine Jazz too. (Now: anybody need a VHS set, cheap...?)