April 26, 2016

Monk's Top Ten

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I was recently listening to “Desert Island Dreamers” by Bucky, John and Martin Pizzarelli, where they musically answer the question concerning must-have songs when stranded on a desert island. This is not the kind of list you would find in a jazz history book, where the author cites historically significant recordings that impacted the development of jazz. This collection was not conceived in the context of jazz history or evolution. In fact, only Louis Armstrong can be found on all jazz critics MVP lists. My opinions are personal, certainly based on musical content but also on the impact these recordings had on me at specific moments in my life.
When I look for a common thread, I find that all these recordings satisfy my own definition of essential listening: they move me physically; they stay in my head long after the record ends; and they touch something indefinable in the area of my heart.
Click on the song title to hear the particular song.
Cannonball Adderley Quintet recordings could easily fill my Top 10.  “Sack O’ Woe”  gets the nod here, a perfect example of “soul jazz.” Blues-based, with a back and forth between swing and straight grooves, and Cannonball’s inimitable presence on the alto sax. The live recording adds a nice bit of audience interaction.
More R&B instrumental than jazz, it seems this song will never die. The sound of the Hammond B3 organ is key to the success, as well as guitar and organ solos that seem like the only possible thing that could have been played at that moment. If you don’t respond physically in some fashion, check your pulse. I previously wrote an entire blog on this song, here.
Late-night jazz radio exposed me to his tune during my high school years. Pianist Junior Mance translated an evocative mood into music, a feeling that I still cannot put into words. The closest I get is a combination of soul and nostalgia except that I never experienced whatever it was that made me nostalgic. Junior has an uncanny ability to infuse a blues tinge into every phrase. I also wrote a blog on this tune, here.
As a junior high sax player, this tune provided a swinging challenge and an early lesson in big band arranging. The back and forth between the saxes and brass is classic big band writing. My parents took me to see the Glenn Miller “ghost band” and I must admit that I have watched “The Glenn Miller Story” enough times to memorize all the dialogue.
Lightning struck for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Dave encouraged Paul Desmond to write a melody that could match up with drummer Joe Morello’s 5/4 explorations. The collaborative effort resulted in a bona fide hit. According to jazz lore, Desmond thought the title, suggested by Brubeck, was ridiculous. Can you imagine it being called anything else?
Absolute exuberance from the one man most credited with setting a formative musical style on the right path. Louis Armstrong’s playing and singing  became the model for generations of musicians and he spread music around the world, earning the sobriquet, “Ambassador of Jazz”.
Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones. This trio of musical giants does not disappoint as each contributes to a musical gem that could not possibly be improved. The Chairman of the Board knew his music and never sounded better than when he was standing among the Basie crew. This one also warranted a separate blog entry, here.
This recording is the latest to make my list but its place in a stylistic jazz timeline is only preceded by the Louis Armstrong tune. Pianist Dick Hyman arranged this medley for a small group of superlative players and captured early swing in a modern recording environment. The fact that I was able to play this music with Mr. Hyman in a live concert helped boost it into my favorites.
Us
The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra provided us with a modern, adventurous big band. Thad’s writing was unique and I love the sections where the rhythm section drops out, leaving the brass and saxes alone. Jerome Richardson on soprano sax provides a lesson in economy and expression. The saxophone section gets a workout that becomes more challenging as the choruses progress.
Birdland
How can one song have so many hooks? Keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who spent ten years with Cannonball Adderley, cites a night at Birdland with the Basie Orchestra as inspiration for this iconic fusion hit. The combination of ear-catching riffs with its  infectious groove made it adaptable for both professional and scholastic ensembles.

March 11, 2016

George Martin, 1926-2016


Tonight I was flipping through a sampling of Beatle LPs. George Martin received a one-line mention on every album: “Produced in England by George Martin.” What exactly does that mean? I moved on to LPs by Steely Dan, Michael MacDonald and Al Jarreau. Separate individuals were credited as producer, for rhythm section arrangements, horn arrangements, string charts, etc. A Paul Simon CD, “Rhythm of the Saints” had multiple individuals credited for “guitar arrangements.”
I’ve done enough studio work to witness producers at various levels, some of whom were not musicians at all but had developed a good ear and a perceptive sense of what was needed for a particular group of musicians. For bands fortunate enough to have a big budget contract, the average producer might say, “Hmm I think I hear string parts on this song. Let’s get someone in here to listen and arrange it.” An arranger would come in, listen to the song, write the chart and pass it off to a music copyist. Meanwhile the producer might call a contractor whose job it is to know who the proper musicians were and how to contact them. The contractor books the date, the arranger may conduct the session, or perhaps another conductor is called in to facilitate the recording of these parts.
Mr. Martin did all of these things. His classical experience enabled him to write effectively for all the strings and brass, and to know what setting would take the Beatles’ songs to a yet-unheard-of level. In addition to his skills as an arranger, Mr. Martin had the connections to know exactly who to call and how to get things done.
Most important of all, he heard in his head what would complete the potential musical gems offered by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. That’s the first step. Musicians can listen to arrangements and say “I could have written that.” They might listen to the strings that graced McCartney’s “Yesterday” and say “I could have done that.” Perhaps, but probably not. Writing the actual arrangement must be preceded by the insight that the song can benefit from it. All the skill of putting notes on paper is worthless if one does not have ability to conjure up the perfect accompaniment for the songwriters. Link here for Mr. Martin's backstory to Yesterday.
I would suggest you listen to the Beatles song “For No One.” How did George Martin know that a French horn solo would complete the song? How did he know that a small clarinet choir would make “When I’m 64” a song that would provide the appropriate geriatric sensibility to the lyrics? The list goes on and on.
We now know that George’s name credited on the back of these LPs was pivotal to the phenomenal body of work we love from The Beatles.

March 7, 2016

A Unique Venue

Camerman Forrest Warner prepares for the streaming
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I had assumed I had played every kind of gig imaginable, from ballroom dance engagements to blues gigs to jazz venues to concert halls to playing on trains and boats. But the online course that I am leading, Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players provided an unexpected opportunity yesterday. My musical partners and I played an hour-long gig in the Little Pub at Hamilton College. By itself, the setting was not extraordinary. What made it unusual was the fact that we were live streaming to course participants not only in America but throughout the world.
People viewing the course could write in questions and comments as we performed, and a partial list of countries we heard from included Brazil, Finland, France, Spain, Germany, Peru, Greece, Scotland and Argentina. We literally were able to address questions from other continents and respond to them in real time from the stage. 
The MOOC team fields questions during the event.
I had anticipated the hour going by in a hurry but in fact the pressure of playing for a global audience made the time pass slowly. I think I can safely say that the music came through in fine form no doubt due to the flexibility of my first call musical partners, John Hutson on guitar, Tom McGrath on drums, and Sean Peters on bass. In addition, the participation of Hamilton College students enlivened the event.

This online course seems to have struck a positive chord with many participants and it’s not too late to sign up. Although we launch the last week today, the course will remain up for some time. If it piques your curiosity give it a try at this link where you can sign up for Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players.