Saturday, February 13, 2010

Ella Fitzgerald -- 12 Nights In Hollywood

...let us begin with a review of VERVE's more recent boxset of a bunch of Ella Fitzgerald live material from the early 60s. For many Ella fans this is precisely the vindication we've been looking for. Everyone knows Ella is great, but some doubt her straight up, swinging ability to rock a nightclub. No big bands here. No 20-piece orchestra. Just piano, bass, and drums (sometimes guitar) and the First Lady of Song.

...this is my take on the collection as part of a discourse over on (Howard Megdal wrote the other opinion -- you can find it at Perpetual Post).

and an auspicious return for Dopeness and Irrelevance...

The first thing you need to know is when it comes to singing: Ella Fitzgerald is the tops. There is none better. I know you’ve probably heard, from other cats in the know, that its Sarah or Billie Holiday. Maybe they’ve even dropped some heavier names on you: Carmen McRae, Annie Ross, or Betty Carter. And don’t get me wrong — they’re hip. But nobody — but NObody — can sing like Ella Fitzgerald. She is the epitome of swing. She’s the authority on pretty much every song she sings (even the famous live version of “Mack The Knife” where she forgets the words and improvises a few choruses to the joy of the audience). And when it comes to the oft-marred art of scatting, she’s one of the original masters (admittedly, Betty Carter became the insane queen of scat). So if you’re hip, you got to be up on your Ella Fitzgerald.

So a 4-disc set of live engagements in 1961 and ‘62 is a veritable gold-mine for the Ella enthusiast.

Here’s the thing about Ella — she was so awesome that when she was really working on the scene and jazz was still in its prime (just about the late-50s and most of the 60s) most of records were gigantic productions. The kind that featured either a whole orchestra, or some big-name big band (Duke Ellington or Count Basie). And generally that kind of record is pretty orchestrated and through-composed. Everything in its right place, all the tempos set, and all the excursions meticulously planned out. Nothing against that, of course, usually everything aimed towards highlighting the singer so it works out. And many of those records are classic Ella records. But something you don’t hear often is Ella Fitzgerald backed only by a trio (or quartet) and stretching out an informal club-type atmosphere. And certainly not in the early 60s when she was making all those big-time records.

But everyone knows musicians make their money from performing (excepting big pop stars) and so they have to tour. And when you tour it can be pretty impractical to drag around a 30-piece band or a full-orchestra, so she was probably doing most of her gigs with the trio. Stretching out. And improvising and ad-libing, and taking requests and such. I think the lack of evidence of that work has caused Ella to suffer a bit as history describes her. After her, so many singers did their regular work AND records with small combos. So all the names from up top? There’s plenty of evidence how they stretch out and do a couple of set in an intimate setting. Not so for Ella. She’s always been something of jazz’s perfect singer. And that means, for many listeners, that they can’t picture her doing her thing with her working band and being on the grind.

So 12 Nights in Hollywood comes as a great learning tool for those who don’t yet know all the dimensions of Ella Fitzgerald. The woman could rock a night club. Most of the 76 tracks in this collection have her fronting a simple jazz trio (the rest are a quartet with guitar added) and so there are no big horn cadenzas, no long wood-wind solis, no back-up singers in 4-part harmony. Nope: Ella handles all of that. And — wow — what a force she is. Every track is worth listening to a hundred times before moving on to the next one. I had a professor once describe Ella as the greatest jazz harmony teacher that ever existed — and that claim is supported by her amazing work on this record. She rips of tight runs and subtle melisma like its nothing. Tossing out flawless octave leaps here and there. Singing right through the transpositions without making it sound like anything too complicated has happened.

And just the way she sings the songs — that’s amazing in and of itself. I call this collection a treasure because you’ve got the master in her element singing songs from all over the jazz scope. She’s singing all the great tunes and, like I said, each cut is an authoritative rendering. Every jazz singer should be shedding this record. No matter who you’re into now, this was the voice that brought it into the modern era for female vocals.

A few tracks that stand out? The deep swinging funkiness of “Old Black Magic,” the loping jauntiness of “Mack The Knife” (note her homage to her own classic improvise version and her impeccable Satchmo impression), and — perhaps most illuminating of all – ”Joe Williams Blues.” Another often quoted idiocy is the claim that Ella couldn’t sing the blues. That she was just too “happy” to pull it off. To those folks I always say: have you ever heard Lester Young on a blues? Count Basie? or Jay McShan? The blues isn’t all woe-ing and weeping. Oftentimes the blues is a jumping and swinging affair (it was the blues, after all, that nearly caused a riot in ‘56 when Ellington had everyone dancing in the aisle at Newport!). And Ella brings it full-tilt boogie on the blues. She scats a couple choruses and sings right on through. Its absolutely divine.

As per the stretching out, there’s a real treat if you get to “Candy” (on the third disc) where Ella finishes up a tune and realizes that Carl Reiner is in the audience with lyricist Mack David and on the spot she decides to sing David’s “Candy” (which contains a lyric by David). Of course she doesn’t really know the song and you’ll hear here make up a few lyrics in the A-section. The highlight, though, is you can hear David giving her the lyrics as she sings through the bridge. Its a fascinating moment in her live performance to see her AND the band (the band! the band!) play one so off the cuff like that at a moment’s notice.

Well I could go on about this collection for days. I can say that if you think you know anything about jazz singers, you need to dig your eyes on 12 Nights in Hollywood. Its Ella Fitzgerald at the height of her powers. Her voice is ripe and supple (even on the tracks where you can tell she’s probably been singing all night and she missed a few of those high notes), her interpretations are unbeatable (and you aren’t likely to find any thing better from anyone else), and the band (Lou Levy, p; Wilfred Middlebrooks, bs; Gus Johnson, dms; Herb Ellis, gt) is unbeatable.

And trust me, the tracks never get tired. I listened to all 76 tracks in a single sitting and didn’t want to get up when it was over. You’ll want to listen all the way through the end of the fourth CD (there are some great gems on that last disc). Yeah, they call her the First Lady of Song — and its a much deserved moniker. She’ll really give you something to scream about. My only complaint is that its over so soon. From what I’ve read there’s ton more Ella in the Verve vaults. Hopefully, in the years to come, they’ll be even more cause for celebration.

Monday, February 8, 2010

...once again back is the Incredible...

i woke up this morning thinking: it really should get my blog in order. its been a good long minute since i took up the cause of that which is dopeness and irrelevance. i return now -- my mission? to do so.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

simplify before you synthesize

the haitus was unintentional.

but it was unavoidable. however, in all this dark silence, i have acquired music and music and music. much to suggest and to allow and to listen to. i am working on articles as we speak: on live performances by Mark Murphy and Andy Bey. Also, Andy's new album: It Ain't Necessarily So; Wynton Marsalis' Congo Square (with Yacub Addy); Terence Blanchard's A Tale of God's Will; Soulive's No Place Like Soul (with Toussaint the Liberator); Meshell Ndegeocello's The World Has Made Me The Man of My Dreams; and Joshua Redman's Back East (an album of stellar trios).

and some back catalogs i recently found: Stanley Clark's Children Of Forever; Gary Bartz's NTU group; Miles Davis' Cellar Door Sessions boxset.

also some newcomers, like Christian Scott's sophomore album.

Also, i think i may have found enough cash to buy Jill Scotts new album: The Real Thing.

...anyway, the point is -- don't give up on dopeness just yet. we are going to make a concerted push for the holiday season. and hit the new year running.


ps. i found some old articles from my more youthful years (like 3 years ago... i know...) that may still prove relevant.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

mark murphy at the Iridium

singer mark murphy is bringing is funky, impressionistic, free-wheeling style to the Iridium this week starting on thursday and concluding on sunday. it is my hope to catch him early sunday... and report back asap.
his recent album, love is what stays, is really a great piece of work and has some excellent song as well as arrangements on it. i look forwards to seeing how these are tackled in a live setting. what size his band will be (the iridium stage is not HUGE but Lee Konitz did get his nonet on there without have to move the piano off-stage... so... it could be anything, couldn't it?)
(Kinch... is on the back burner while i try to get my fall teaching obligations in order).


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Group A : live at Mo' Pitkins

still plugging away at the Soweto Kinch jawn. here's a review of set of music by a friend of mine: dude named Aaron 'Juse' Steele -- and his band, last friday in the East village or alphabet city or whatever they're calling that area these days. couple more days on the Soweto (promises... promises...)


Group A : live at Mo Pitkins

Occasionally, i have the pleasure of going out to a show in manhattan by some young musicians and being truly impressed. a few weeks back i met drummer Aaron Steele at the gig of mutual friend at the Tea Lounge on Union Street in Park Slope. we rapped enough at the show that i knew this was going to be a live cat. we hopped over to the after party together, with my friend and rapper Noah Weston AKA Soulkhansensus, and went to our respective chills within the party. but after, we decided to go to the local 24 hour diner and vernaculate on hiphop, jazz, and free music.

at the end of the night (morning) i determined that this cat steele was the real deal. so i was not surprised to hear his project band, Group A, was also the real deal.
the back room at Mo Pitkins is one of the hipper little spots at which to scope music in the city. separated from the main bar by a heavy curtain, one is instantly transported to some hole-in-the-wall club from the 1950s. while the patrons are different, the feel and decor of the place are intact. there are high-backed booths for the intimate types and -- for the non-intimate types -- simple wood tables and chairs. very unlike the more cushy clubs closer to mid-town. there is a bar-like atmosphere, but its very focused on the stage and the music. i took a seat with my party (a collection of bard college and new school students and alums) and ordered a bourbon straight-up (the best audience drink in the world, if you ask me).
when the music began, i was sure i was not hearing my friend aaron but, rather, some unsung fusion band from the mid-70s. with a seven-piece group comprise of keyboards, bass, drums, guitar, saxophone, trumpet, AND singer... Group A had a sound that seemed to come simultaneously out of Sly and the Family Stone, Sun Ra, and the 1968's Miles in the Sky. at once funky, and out, electronic and organic, intense and subtle -- the group is an event happening when they play. and it felt like that from the first note. an event. a happening. a transportation from where we were to where we was headed.

Viva Zyprexa
, the first tune, was a laconic bit of word-setting. and, if one had heard it performed by, say, piano and vocals alone, one might think it was simply an angularized ballad. but with the addition of Steele and, bass player, Andrew Perusi the rhythmic under-pinning had such a shifting, funky earnestness that it was hard not imagine oneself (having no frame of reference) watching some outrageous 70's fusion beast-band at one of the Fillmore's. right away, my first warning is watch out for the Steele-Perusi groove. both players have a penchant for twisting time. a penchant that goes to lengths so extreme that it sometimes turns a 2-4 beat on its side and goes into the (normally) forbidden square 1-3 territory. in any band it is a dangerous game to play, deliberately attacking the front and ass of the groove like that. it can breed a contagious confusion about where the measures start and finish and turn into a complete fuck-all mish-mash. this didn't happen with group A because surrounding the daring twosome on bass and drums were five competent and quicksilver musicians. all daring in their own right.

Holding down much of the harmonic material were keyboardist Dominic Fallacaro and guitarist Matt Meade. Fallacaro came miraculously into the fray with dense two-handed chords and interspersed moments of enlightened jazz counterpoint. When it came time to solo, however, Fallacaro was quick to sit on his left hand and give us a horn-like solo from his right. occasionally playing double-time octave runs and always, always, always bringing that harmonic sophistication that so many keyboardists seem to be afraid the bring over a funky groove. Meade played it cool and spent much of his time plumbing through the time trenches left gaping by Steele and Perusi. His solos were somewhat antiphonous to the rest of the enemble. Where as much of what was going on had a fast-paced midtown like frenzy to it, Meade played way back in and under everything. choosing his notes calmly and carefully, it seemed, like a Horace Silver or a Wes Montgomery (when he was playing with Chambers, Cobb, and Kelly). further in (and actually in front of the crowded stage - not on it) were Takuya Kuroda (trumpet) and John Stenesco (saxophone) playing in the melded unisons and synchronous harmonies of a chorus. While Matt Scheffer (aka Matt Paolo) vocalised his way through the sometimes treacherous melodic material with unwavering confidence Kuroda and Stenesco played sometimes around, sometimes behind, sometimes with him. It seemed, at times, Scheffer sang with three voices instead of one. And his voice had the pure, un-affected quality of a jazz singer (a term which often connotes something curse-like for musicians, but when done properly is a boon to almost every ensemble). A June Tyson like frankness of tone. days earlier Aaron had described him to me as a cat who could sing anything. and it did indeed seem like no matter the speed, distance, or dissonance between notes, Scheffer was able to sing them like the most simple melody -- giving them body, life, and vitality.

And, not to be dismissed, were the fantastic solos Kuroda and Stenesco poured out over the electro-acoustic porridge.

Most of the numbers from the night were originals written by one or another member of the group. the most impressive interpolation of the night was the exceptional arrangement of that old Beatles warhorse: Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. how that song could possible be made more psychadelic than the original -- i don't know. But perhaps, these days, there are new and different psychadelics. and new, less idealistic highs to contend with. Group A is a group exploring those dark recesses of consciousness. much of what came across was ultra-heavy, ultra-intense high drama. like sophocles with a fusion band (am i allowed to say that?!) they invited Noah Weston onstage for an impromptu hiphop number over a grove they call: Rhino. and very appropriately ended their set with a killing tune: Ride Those Waves. up and up and up they went. and to be honest -- we're still coming down.

Monday, September 24, 2007

a short: The First Century according to Giddins

...been reading Gary Giddins' Visions of Jazz book the last two or three days. And I am very pleasantly surprised by its thoroughness and perceptiveness. the book, which is essentially an attempt to explore the entire first century of jazz (the birth being a debatable point... but essential at the turn of the century give or take 10 years), is engaging, informative and actually written - it would seem - for adult readers. i would get side-tracked for several paragraphs were i to try to explain my distaste for so-called jazz biographies and so-called jazz-histories that seem to be written with eighth-grade music appreciation book reports in mind. if you are looking for a good jazz biography... be careful... i can only think of three that i have truly enjoyed (three, my friends. and i own well over thirty.)

the main gist is this: Giddin's book does what most jazz writers seem to fear the most: its avoids almost all of the main players. all the big draws like Trane, Miles, Parker, Ellington. and, instead, Giddins gives a more complete story by giving you the low-down on some of the lesser-known cats. Spencer Williams -- who was a gifted black song-writer. Bert Williams and Al Jolson -- a black black-faced mistrel and a white black-faced minstrel respectively. and Ethel Waters -- america's first black pop music singer? and that's just the little bit i've read so far. the book is series of essays and/or articles which dispense with much of the romantic, over-wrought nonsense and bring us within a stone's throw of understanding the true breadth and beauty of the art form.

i will continue to read it as i finish up on the Soweto Kinch post. it may prove worthy of a longer examination.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

coming soon: Soweto Kinch

apologies on the lackluster beginning. been out of country, out state, and out of mind. working on an article about British saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch. stay tuned...