August 8, 2015

Still the One

Cannonball Adderley
Everyone has a short list of memorable events, occurrences that make such an impression that we can recall exactly where we were when they happened. I was born in 1950, so my list includes the Kennedy assassination, the first landing on the moon, and the Beatles appearances on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Also on my list is the date August 8, 1975. Forty years ago today, I was in my car outside Rome, New York when I heard the radio announce that Julian “Cannonball” Adderley had passed away.
I’ve written about Cannonball before, and he is still my all-time favorite jazz artist. As an up-and-coming saxophonist I was first influenced by the cool toned and somewhat dispassionate Paul Desmond, who became popular alongside Dave Brubeck. But Cannonball offered something else: a perfect balance of technique, tone, and passionate delivery. The fact that he was an engaging speaker and invited the listener into the music was a big plus.
I was so into Cannonball’s recordings that I noticed when he switched saxophones, from a King Super 20 to the more iconic Selmer. I was not the only fan who noticed. During my interview with Charles McPherson, a major player in the world of jazz saxophone, we discussed this change.
MR:   Can we get a shot of you holding your horn? I’m trying to recognize what kind of horn it is.
Charles McPherson
CM:   It’s a King. Most people play a Selmer, and this is a King Super 20.
MR:   Yeah. Cannonball used to play it.
CM:   Yeah Cannonball and Bird. Yeah. And it’s a very nice horn, it’s very human-like. Very much like the human voice.
MR:   It’s interesting you say that because when I hear your tone — actually the thing that attracts me to a player is the tone first. And I hear that in your sound. And I noticed when Cannonball switched from King to Selmer that I was disappointed.
CM:   Unbelievable. I mean I know that. But I’m surprised that — well you said you play saxophone.
MR:   Yeah, but I heard it.
CM:   Isn’t that something, because I did too. And so you really do know. Because that’s a subtle thing, but it is a difference. And I remember it as a CD or record, whatever, where he did play Selmer for a while. And it was great, and it’s still great ‘cause he’s great. And I remember that oh this is great, but it doesn’t have that pop or that warmth either. And the Selmer is a great horn, and he sounded great on it. But this King, it was just something about that that, I don’t know just Cannonball sounded great on this. And Charlie Parker sounded great on this horn. I’ve heard other people on this horn that don’t sound so great, and I hope I’m not one of them.
I’d like to take a brief look at three recordings that personified the Cannonball Adderley legacy.
Cannonball burst into the New York jazz scene in the mid-1950s and his 1957 recording of the uptempo “Spectacular” demonstrated his mastery of the demanding and sometimes frantic bop style. He had so absorbed the language of Charlie Parker that the critics jumped on the bandwagon and hailed him as the new Bird. “Spectacular” is an impressive display of technique and chordal-based improvisation.
Ten years later Cannonball and his quintet had progressed into a style that critics called “soul jazz.” From the album “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” “Sticks” provides a striking example of Cannonball in full blues/gospel/soul mode. “The Sticks” is a 12-bar blues with an ear-catching melody. Brother Nat plays three exciting choruses; near the end of his third he engages in some stuttering double-tonguing. Cannonball, always aware of his musical surroundings, jumps on Nat’s phrasing at 1:27, roaring into a solo that has the live audience completely in his corner.
One year later, again in a live situation, Cannonball displayed his masterful approach to a ballad. The song “Somewhere” from “West Side Story” provided him with a highly expressive vehicle and his huge tone filled the room. If you listen to Cannon’s voice at the end of the song, it sounds like he actually choked himself up with the intensity of the song.
Drummer Roy McCurdy spent twelve years with Cannonball and spoke enthusiastically about his experience. Here he speaks of a unique method for keeping in sync with the brothers:
Roy McCurdy
RM:   Did you ever see Cannon and Nat live?
MR:   Oh, yeah.
RM:   They were really funny to me, because I was behind them all the time, looking at them. And this brother was short and Cannon was tall. And they had a way of snapping their fingers and moving, and their behinds were both in sync you know. And they would be snapping and the behinds would be in sync.
MR:   It’s almost as if you guys were creating a style as you went along.
RM:   Yeah. It was.
MR:   Did you have a name for it or did you let other people name it?
RM:   We just let other people name it. It was just music for us you know. We didn’t want to be in one particular slot all the time, like just straight ahead jazz or something. We wanted to be able to do all kinds of things and have some fun. And not only did we do funk and soul and Gospel and jazz, we also experimented with different time figures and things too at that time. Like 7/4 time, 5/4 time and things like that. We did “Seventy-four Miles Away.” That album was 7/4 time.
Vocalist Nancy Wilson credits Cannonball with jumpstarting her career, and during our interview I told her of my enthrallment with one of her early albums, “Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley.” Oddly enough, the critics were not kind to this recording.
MR:   This particular album, I can’t imagine anybody saying anything bad about it.
Nancy Wilson
NW:   Oh it was the fact that Cannonball Adderley had kind of stepped out of the jazz thing, into the pop. Because this was a huge across the board album. It was not just a jazz album. “The Masquerade Is Over,” “Sleeping Bee,” these songs just popped out everywhere. And that was the good thing about radio in those days and music is that the focus wasn’t so narrow then. We were able to play concert venues, Carnegie Hall where we were also able to go into, the south side of Chicago and play The Southerland. So you could do so many more things then than you can today. The labels kind of keep you out of places. Whereas before we tried to broaden the scope. I believe that Cannonball Adderley took jazz out of the sawdust and he was one of the more commercial jazz artists. And he made his audience understand what he was doing.
It’s hard to say what Cannonball Adderley would be doing with his musical career if he had lived. Other artists, such as Benny Carter and Milt Hinton remained productive into their eighties and nineties. The avante garde saxophonist Kidd Jordan offered his opinion on what Cannonball’s music might have evolved into, and gave us a bit of insight into his personality:
Kidd Jordan
KJ:   Cannonball was one of my favorite players too. And look, changes didn’t mean nothing to him, you know that huh? Cannonball was playing by ear. I mean he could hear changes like that, and that’s why he went and locked in all them patterns that people was playing. Well you know Cannonball, and he sounded like a first alto player, that was another thing.
MR:   That’s for sure.
KJ:   That’s right. Cannonball could lead us saxes man. I listened to that Cannonball and they’re talking about first alto players, as a soloist he’s got the same thing that all those first alto players had. You know? And changes didn’t mean nothing. Believe me. Cannonball could play through ‘cause he could hear ‘em. Now that’s a case that that’s a complete musician. And look, before he died he told me he said, “Kidd, you know what? I’m going to play some of that crazy stuff, you see the next album I do? I’m gonna do some of the crazy stuff you’re doing.” But he died before that. Now that would have been something.
MR:   What kind of guy was he?
KJ:   Oh easy, happy-go-lucky, I mean one of the most beautiful cats I ever knew. And I got — he and Alvin Batiste was great friends. And me and Alvin was brother-in-laws you know, we’ve been brother-in-laws for 50 years now, so every time Cannon would come in they’d be cooking gumbo and all, and it would be party time when he’d come to town.

I know I’ll spend this weekend listening to some of my favorite Cannonball from the LPs that I saved my money for back in the early 60s. You can read our previous blog on Cannonball entitled, “Mercy Mercy” from May of 2009.

June 18, 2015

Has Played With ...


My wife and I recently saw an engaging movie called “The Wrecking Crew.” It chronicled the history of a select group of studio musicians in Los Angeles who seemingly played on every record that came out of L.A. studios in the 60s and 70s. Their list of credits is astounding; both albums and one-hit-wonders succeeded because of their musical input.
When preparing for an interview for the Fillius Jazz Archive, I try to do as much research as possible, and have read numerous resumes and bios in this process. A common phrase is: John Q. Musician has played or recorded with … This all-inclusive resume bullet covers a lot of ground and can include the following sub-categories:
            Has shared the stage with …
            Has been hired by a contractor to play with …
            Has paid these musicians to play with him
            Has been hired for a recording session with …
            Has jammed with …
My own musical resume includes entries in almost all of these categories.
The most common occurrence for shared the stage with is being a member of a warm-up band for a big name act. I recall the excitement of warming up for Herbie Hancock in the mid-1970s. Herbie’s group was enjoying a surge of popularity on the heels of his groundbreaking record “Chameleon.” I was a member of an Oswego, NY-based band called Coalition and we fit the genre of jazz-fusion. The band members and I fantasized about the possibilities. All warm-up bands do. Maybe he’ll hear us, like us, and invite us on his tour to be his regular warm-up act. Maybe he knows somebody in the record business and will provide a recommendation. Of course none of that happened. My strongest memory is being required to be on stage five hours before the concert for a perfunctory sound check. Herbie’s saxophonist, Benny Maupin, stood where I did after our set. So I guess I can say that I shared the stage with Herbie Hancock and his Head Hunters.
Years later I was a member of a group called Mr. Edd. We warmed up for the guitar phenom Rick Derringer. Different band, same excitement, same result.
Much of my experience with pop and rock personalities has been under the hired by a contractor category. Utica, Syracuse and Rochester provide performing sites on the convenient New York State Thruway circuit, and many artists who require back-up bands have passed through over the years. I will never forget my experience with rock & roll singer Bobby Lewis, who was best known for his hit “Tossin’ & Turnin.’” Bobby augmented his 30 minute set with other hits from the era, and in our brief and harried rehearsal we ran through the doo wop song “Who Put the Bomp.” Bobby, who was legally blind, became agitated during the intro, when my attempts to accompany him on piano didn’t jive with his singing. His gesticulations became more and more animated as he exclaimed, “No! No! Not like that!” I became extremely frustrated as I stared at the music and struggled to connect with Bobby’s words, “I’d like to thank the guy who wrote the song...” Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable amount of time, I took a close look at both pages of the music and discovered that some unnamed pianist before me had taped the two pages backwards. I was actually trying to start the song at the beginning of page two. I beat myself up pretty good after this particular gig, but it makes for a good story.
My memories with Sam the Sham, of “Wooly Bully” fame are more upbeat. Sam came with his own guitar accompanist and a contracted bassist and drummer was all he needed to add, except for the song “Wooly Bully,” which required a prominent tenor sax solo. I got the assignment and before we walked out on stage Sam came to me with a serious demeanor, and said, “are you my sax player tonight?” I replied, “yes, I am.” He said, “are you good?” Now this is a question that you get asked on occasion and there’s always an internal debate. The knee-jerk response is, “well yes, I’m a decent player.” Boring. In this case I decided to play his game, hoping it was indeed a game. I said, “yes, I’m good.” He says, “are you really good?” I said, “yes, I’m really good.” “Are you great?” “I’m a great player.” His last move: “well then you can’t play with me.” But I did. A memorable moment.
By far the most intense gig via contractor was the Hamilton College concert with Aretha Franklin. In this case I was the contractor for the horn section. So I hired myself. The run-through in the afternoon couldn’t even be called a rehearsal. One chart after the other, play the beginning, play the end, move on.
Aretha Franklin at Hamilton College, in 2008
Afterwards people asked me, “how was Aretha?” And I can’t even tell them. She was not at the rehearsal, and during the concert the horn players had to do their best to tune her out, knowing that as soon as we started paying attention to what she was doing we would lose our place as the music flew by. But I can tell you that the moniker “Queen of Soul” is apropos.
I was contracted to play three dates with rock & roller Del Shannon and initially thought I would be playing the iconic keyboard solo on “Runaway.” It is technically challenging, and is a hook in and of itself. I put considerable practice time into it, only to have Del say, “don’t play that, play something raunchy.”
Other artists that I could include in this “contracted for” category include Bob Newhart, Connie Francis and Joan Rivers. You can read about my experience with Ms. Rivers in my blog entry Joan Saves the Day.

On to the has paid these musicians to play with category. I can cite a lengthy list of jazz artists that I have been in the enviable position to hire. In 1975 I engaged in my first booking of a well-known jazz personality. I brought Marian McPartland to the high school where I taught and staged a concert with her and my jazz band. In a quartet segment I was able to perform with this artist who was so full of class and talent. We were acquaintances for the rest of her life, and one of my songs on my 1999 release of “Jazz Life” was dedicated to her. It’s entitled “Queen’s Waltz.”
Every fall I book a group of veteran jazz players for Hamilton’s Fallcoming concert. It was on stage during one of the 2002 events that I received a nice compliment, in the form of a question. The band partially consisted of woodwind artists Kenny Davern and Bob Wilber. I was invited on stage to play “Apex Blues.” During my soprano sax solo I engaged in what I call “tongue wagging,” an effect rather like double tonguing on the trumpet. Bob Wilber, who was standing to my left, asked me while I was playing, “hey, how do you do that?”
(L-R) Kenny Davern, Monk Rowe, Bob Wilber
My engagements with these musicians over the years, also included Clark Terry, Joe Wilder, and Claude “Fiddler” Williams. These comprise some of my most memorable musical moments. There are advantages to playing with people you have hired. You are very likely to receive glowing praise, especially while you still have their pay in your possession.
Another category would be hired to play on a record. In the early 1980s a band came to town to record at UCA Studios where I worked. Like all bands, they were doing demos in hopes of obtaining a record deal. Unlike most bands, they landed one, and a healthy one at that. A couple of months later I found myself in a Memphis, Tennessee recording studio, engaged as an arranger and keyboardist. At one point I was overdubbing a keyboard part, basically beating up on a Wurlitzer electric piano that had been passed through a fuzz box and Marshall amp. The harder I played, the more they liked it. I’m not sure that I would include this particular song on a compilation of musical moments to tout. Actually the best recollection I have of the trip was being able to run my fingers over the B3 organ that Booker T used on “Green Onions.”
As for the last category, has jammed with, I never have been much of a “jammer,” but I do my best to prepare my students for moments when they will jam with others. One of my former students, Sam Kininger, jammed regularly with The Dave Mathews Band, proving once again that all cream eventually does rise.

May 31, 2015

Inheriting a Big Band




My normal schedule as a working musician includes multiple duties at Hamilton College in Upstate New York. Those duties encompass private saxophone lessons, directing a saxophone ensemble, and overseeing the Fillius Jazz Archive. Playing gigs and writing the occasional arrangement for local groups supplement my day-to-day schedule.
This past spring semester I had a welcome addition in the form of directing the Hamilton College Jazz Ensemble. This is an opportunity presented to me every five years when the college jazz professor takes a sabbatical. I am familiar with big bands. The bands of Glenn Miller, Count Basie and the like were my first inspiration to pursue music. In college I was a member of the SUNY Fredonia Jazz Ensemble; I led a high school jazz ensemble in the Utica area; and I’ve played on and off with local big bands over the years.
Jazz bands do not require “conducting” per se. The groove should already be there from the rhythm section, and the waving of arms in a traditional sense is perfunctory. As band leader Bill Holman stated in our February 1999 interview, “well, things that are in tempo, dance band or jazz band charts, conducting is kind of a grand word for it, because what you do is get them started and get them stopped.” For me, a few cues from the hips, hands and eyes suffice.
Most instrumental teachers from the middle school level and up are now expected to direct a jazz ensemble. They learn that the standard instrumentation consists of five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, and one each of piano, bass, drums and guitar. A vocalist is optional.
This year at Hamilton the band I inherited consisted of six saxophones, two trombones, one trumpet, three guitars, three drummers, a pianist, and three vocalists (two male and one female). Both Hamilton student bass players were spending the semester abroad. And while I avoid hiring ringers, I did engage a local bassist, Sean Peters, to fill in. No bass, no band! I sought out a second student trumpet player and recruited a tubist from the brass ensemble. This gave me a marginal brass section, significantly out of balance with the six hard-blowing saxophonists. To be honest, I welcomed the challenge and would have been disappointed if I had inherited a band with the requisite person in each chair ready to read store-bought arrangements as written. I have always loved arranging music as much as playing it, and here was my opportunity to get my licks in, both writing charts and tweaking others for the band’s strengths and weaknesses.
From our first rehearsal I made it clear that learning by ear and spontaneity would be part of our process. We learned Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)”  without written music or lyrics. To keep the extra drummers, guitarists and singers engaged, I arranged a piece that included a part for rhythm sticks.
Our two weekly rehearsals were leading to two on-campus performances in May. My eclectic tastes in music were reflected in our concert program, which ultimately ended up in a healthy number of tunes, 14 to be exact, in multiple styles. A gig in the college café served as a warm-up for the main event in a concert hall on May 5.
I have always had faith in the blues to catch people’s ears, so our first two numbers of the performance were 12-bar blues: Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack O’ Woe” and Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66,” giving one of our vocalists his first appearance. The rest of the concert consisted of classic swing from the 1930s, a ballad “At Last” to feature our girl singer, and a premier performance of an upbeat Latin chart composed by our one music major in the band. I was cognizant of the fact that our five-man brass section was going to need a break during the middle of the concert, and also that variety and changes in groove are an integral part of a successful performance. With that in mind, we featured each section of the band. Guitarists played Django Reinhardt’s “A Minor Swing”:
The saxes ripped through Woody Herman’s “Four Brothers” (which I can tell you can survive without any brass at all).
The singers exactly mirrored the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, so we gave the audience what was most probably their first exposure to the extremely catchy tune “Yeh Yeh” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
The brass were featured on Horace Silver’s “The Preacher,” and our three drummers engaged in a tom-tom battle on the Benny Goodman classic “Sing Sing Sing.”
The band then reconvened for a medley. I think it’s safe to say that this was the first combination of these particular songs. Trombonist Al Gray wrote a wonderful ear worm called “Echoes of New Orleans,” written to reflect his experience of hearing marching bands pass by his hotel room during Mardi Gras. The planets aligned for this particular song. One of our saxophonists played decent clarinet, a New Orleans staple, and a guitarist fortuitously doubled on banjo. With the tuba, these additions added the exact right touch. I had an intuition that our “I Feel Good” vocalist might know how to really play the tambourine — the kind with the head on it. At one rehearsal I handed it to him and said, “when I give you the nod, let me hear what you can do.” And he really captured the sound of the street. A fade out ending, mimicked the band disappearing down the street, and we transitioned into controlled cacophony. A shouted, “one-two-three-four-WHAP” “I Feel Good” announced our last tune. In a dress rehearsal that afternoon I told the horn players to feel free to rise up out of their seats, since there was no written music. They took me at my word and their impromptu dance around the stage helped inspire a standing ovation at the end of the concert.
Invariably an unexpected situation occurs at such events. I took considerable care in discussing the appropriate dress, the banning of cell phones during the concert, no practicing on stage, etc. I failed to announce, “no shorts,” which apparently can be part of a collegiate dress wardrobe. When three male band members appeared with bared legs, the only thing to do was seize the moment and stage an impromptu “fashion show,” complete with improvised piano accompaniment.
Music teachers are not often taught about arranging. It’s a skill that can be learned from books, but is better experienced by doing, starting with flute duets, transitioning to saxophone quartets, followed by two and three part choral arrangements. You have to learn what to do and what not to do, depending on the age level you are writing for. Computer programs like Sebelius and Finale help. But the musical intuition you learn throughout your career is the best aid.
Leading a band every year is much like having a sports team. Your best and your worst players eventually will move on. And what you get from one year to the next will vary, sometimes immensely. Arranging skills can help you use this situation to your advantage by customizing charts for the strengths and weakness of the players in any given ensemble.