Saturday, August 25, 2012

Taking a side trip to the bluer notes

Although I write mainly about jazz I have been known to discuss blues on rare occasions. For one thing, if it weren't for blues jazz would be a blend of ragtime and marching music. Do not mistake rock guitarists playing simple-minded I-IV-V with blues.

The blues musicians I most admire are the ones who fanned out from Kansas City: Basie, Bird, Pres, Jay McShann and countless others. The blues vocalists, though, gave me my introduction at an early age when my late brother and I discovered Bessie Smith in the early 1960s.

As time went on I discovered others, but the one whose story and music truly touched me was Alberta Hunter. The discovery came in 1980 when my brother told me about Amtrak Blues.

This album grabbed my attention. I loved her singing and was blown away to find out that she was 83 years young when she recorded it in 1978. I would have guessed she was in her 30s had I not known better.

Her backing ensemble consisted of Gerald Cook on piano (and who would back her for the remainder of her days), Aaron Bell on bass, Jackie Williams on drums, Billy Butler on guitar, Frank Wess on tenor sax and flute, Noris Turney on tenor sax and clarinet, and two greats - trombonist Vic Dickinson and trumpter "Doc" Cheatham. Cheatham, in particular, lent authenticity to the session by reaching back and playing with the same feel he had used when he backed Bessie Smith decades earlier.

Here are a few tracks from the album:

The album is authentic to be sure, but also swings harder than many jazz albums, and exudes energy. The rhythm section is superb and Jackie Williams' drumming is well worth isolating and studying.

If discovering Amtrak Blues proved to be an auspicious moment in my musical development, discovering an even earlier album, Songs We Taught Your Mother, opened my eyes and ears to some of Bessie's contemporaries, as well as the likes of Zutty Singleton, a drummer who was part of Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives & Sevens sessions between 1925 and 1929 that changed the course of jazz.

Alberta shares this album with two of her contempories: Lucille Hegamin and Victoria Spivey. The styles could not be more different among them, but it was also like a time capsule listening to blues as it was played back in their heydays. A lot of credit goes as much to the backing musicians as to the vocalists. Whoever produced this album understood the importance of authenticity because in addition to Zutty Singleton the ensemble reads like a who's who of pioneers: Cecil Scott on clarinet, tenor saxophone, Buster Bailey on clarinet, Sidney DeParis on trumpet and tuba, Henry Goodwin on trumpet, J.C. Higginbotham on trombone, Cliff Jackson and Willie "The Lion" Smith on piano, and Gene Brooks in the drum chair on some of the tracks along with Zutty.

A few things should jump out at you. First, some of the all time greats like Buster Bailey, J.C. Higginbotham, and Willie "The Lion" Smith are in the ensemble. Second, there is no double bassist. The original ensembles during Alberta's early years employed a tuba instead and this group has that configuration.

Sound samples for the album can be found on this page. While the albums hooked me, I became a staunch fan when I learned Alberta's whole story. I am a sucker for rags-to-riches and improbable success stories. Hers was both and is beautifully documented in My Castle's Rockin'.

This 57 minute video beautifully documents Alberta's life from her birth in 1895 until her passing in 1984. Dr. Billy Taylor is the narrator, but there are others who contribute, including John Hammond. I am not going to provide a synopsis of her story here because it would take up a lot more space that I want to use, but this biography amply covers it. I will say that the documentary is thorough and switches back and forth between her story and a performance at Barney Josephson's The Cookery in Greenwich Village. Here is a clip that will give an idea of the video:

Remember when I started this post with the revelation that Bessie Smith hooked me on blues? One of Bessie's most famous songs was written by Alberta:

Her power and energy is underscored in this 1982 performance at the Smithsonian when she was 87: Jazz Masters Series

Check these clips from that performance out:

Did you note in the clips from My Castle's Rockin' and Jazz Masters Series there was no drummer? Indeed, with her talent and a pianist and bassist she was singing blues that filled the house. Drummers take heed. And guitarists too.

Her body of work, and especially what I have listed in this post, deserves close study by anyone who is serious about being a blues musician. You do not, however, need to be a musician of any kind to enjoy her music or be inspired by her story.

This post is dedicated to my good friend Donna Sweeney - The Daytona Blues Woman - a true blues musician with whom I have shared a stage on occasion, and for whom I have the utmost respect for her talent as a blues musician and her passion for keeping the music alive. She is one of the very few "blues" musicians who actually understands the blues. It is also dedicated to the memory of my late, younger brother - R Kent Tarrani, born on October 16, 1950 and passed away on March 23, 1991 - who introduced me to Bessie, Alberta and a plethora of other blues and jazz pioneers.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Nat King Cole Trio: Lesson in rhythm, swing and harmony

Among the recommendations I made in Some quick recommendations for brushwork was Nat King Cole Trio Box Set:

I can honestly say that this set expanded my musical skills and playing. I'll take it one step further: it should be required listening for every guitarist, bassist, pianist and drummer on the planet.

The reason for the first three is Nat was a virtuoso pianist who had the good fortune to have discovered Johnny Miller on bass and Oscar Moore on guitar. Each musician was in total command of his instrument, and together they were synergistic. Rhythmically, they rivaled the Great American Rhythm Section (Basie, Walter Page, Freddie Green and Papa Jo Jones), but they were also melodically and harmonically geniuses. To be sure, there were other members of the Trio as time passed, including another of my favorites on guitar: Irving Ashby. While the subsequent members were all amazing musicians in their own right, the trio with Miller and Moore stood out as magical in my opinion.

What drew me to the trio recordings contained in this set was the absence of a drummer on most of the tracks. That may sound silly since from my tag it's obvious that I am a drummer, but that is what makes this set all the more valuable. It opened my eyes (and ears) to how music can be both rhythmic and swing without a drummer. That forced me to carefully examine each instrument - bass, guitar and piano - and how they contributed to time, pulse and rhythm. Taking the time to dissect the music like that has changed my views on the role of a drummers (and humbled me by showing that a drummer can be dispensed with with the right musicians), thus making me a [hopefully] better drummer who is aware of what the other musicians are doing.

One other plus for drummers is because a great many tracks in this set are ensembles without one, this makes an ideal set of play-along tracks. I guarantee that your brush (and stick) chops will improve.

The November 4, 1949 concert wonderfully captured on Forgotten 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert is often touted as evidence that Nat was a virtuoso pianist.

However, do not think that this album is the first (or last) to show off Nat's virtuoso piano skills. His playing at Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts showcased those. Check out Jazz At The Philharmonic: featuring Body And Soult from a July 1944 concert for evidence.

What I love about this album, aside from the historical value, is the music itself. The fifteen tracks are pure Nat King Cole in jazz form. Another treat, because I am a Woody Herman fan, is when his herd joins in on Last Moon, adding icing to a musical cake for me.

Nat's trio at this concert did not include any of the original members. Irving Ashby replaced Oscar Moore on guitar and Joe Comfort took over Johnny Miller's bass spot. Plus, by this point in Nat's career, it was Nat King Cole and his Trio, not the Nat King Cole Trio. The third member was percussionist Jack Costanzo who played bongos on this album.

While Ashby is my second favorite trio guitarist and Comfort's bass was solid, the synergy of the original trio was not there in this performance. Or it just may be my imagination. Regardless, the music is consistently excellent and guarantees that this album will get a lot of play time.

The sound is fairly good for the period, although an audiophile would probably find fault. I wish Ashby and Comfort were a little more prominent in the mix, but that is a personal desire on my part and not a flaw in the recording as far as I am concerned.

One final recording that I highly recommend is After Midnight: The Complete Session:

This 1957 album had a fairly large ensemble (Nat on piano with Harry Sweets Edison on trumpet, Willie Smith on alto, Juan Tizol on trombone, Stuff Smith on violin, and a rhythm section comprised of Charlie Harris on bass, Lee Young on drums, John Collins on guitar and Jack Costanzo on bongos. A side note: Tizon composed Caravan (on the album) with Ellington, and Lee Young is Lester Young's brother. For those who do not know, Lester started out as a drummer himself, moving to alto then tenor sax.

The significance of this album is it brought Nat back to his jazz roots. By 1957 he was better known for his popular music and many had either lamented the fact that he was no longer playing jazz or were unaware of his roots. This album dispelled any doubts that he was - first and foremost - a jazz musician. It also reinforced his reputation as a virtuoso pianist instead of a vocalist who happened to play piano. Finally, this album is true to this post's theme: rhythm, swing and harmony.

Now I am going to take a step backwards and refocus on Nat's roots - his trio. A starting point that is Nat King Cole: Soundies & Telescriptionsn:

The music is divided into soundies and transcriptions.

Before proceeding allow me to explain soundies and telescriptions. A soundie is a mini music video that was popular during most of the 1940s. They were usually three minutes long and were presented on coin operated movie jukeboxes. A telescription - a television transcription - was also approximately three minute videos made for TV. The producer, Louis D. Snader, did made-for-TV shorts during 1951-52 and you will see the term Snader Telescription often used. Another distinction is soundies were often scripted and staged, while the telescriptions were live performances.

What this DVD contains is a set of 27 performances, divided between the two formats. Here are the performances:

  1. Route 66
  2. Sweet Lorraine
  3. Little Girl
  4. Home
  5. The Trouble with Me Is You
  6. Calypso Blues
  7. For Sentimental Reasons
  8. Thats My Girl
  9. Mona Lisa
  10. Because of Rain
  11. Too Young
  12. This Is My Night to Dream
  13. Nature Boy
  14. You Call It Madness
  15. Got a Penny Benny
  16. Come to Baby Do
  17. Errand Boy for Rhythm
  18. Is You Is or Is You Aint My Baby
  19. I'm a Shy Guy
  20. Who's Been Eating My Porridge
  21. Frim Fram Sauce
  22. Oh Kickeroony
  23. Now He Tells Me
  24. Breezy and the Bass
  25. Solid Potato Salad
  26. It's Better to Be by Yourself
  27. Always You
Here is the total set of performances:

As you can see, the music covers a lot of Nat's most popular work from the period, and, in fact, some of his most enduring classics.

My preference is the soundies because I happen to like the synergy among the first trio - Nat, Oscar Moore and Johnny Miller. That is not to say that Irving Ashby who replaced Moore on guitar and Joe Comfort who replaced Miller on bass by the time the telescriptions were filmed are bad. Ashby remains one of my favorite jazz guitarists and Comfort is a solid bassist. And, of course, the addition of Jack Costanzo on percussion on the later trio added a lot and allowed adding songs like Calypso Blues to the repertoire. As an aside, the later trio (Ashby-Comfort-Costanzo) did a remarkable job backing Nat in the Forgotten 1949 Carnegie Hall Concert.

Bottom line: if you are a fan this is a great addition to a music library because you can not only enjoy hearing Nat, but watch him too. If your video does turn out to be out of synch, then play the audio without the video and pretend it's a CD. After all, you will have 27 tracks of some of his best performances to enjoy.

If you enjoyed the video and the selections, then this three CD set sinply titled Transcriptions will probably delight you also.

Check out the sound samples on the linked page to see why I recommend this set.

I am going to end this post with a Hollywood version of the apocryphal story of how Nat came to be a singer. Also note the subtle racism which was common for the era (in one case when Nat is in a hospital one of his managers calls him boy, which is not that subtle by today's standards, but was not even considered offensive [by whites] in the 1950s.

If you wish to dig deeper into Nat's life I recommend this book: Nat King Cole

This post is dedicated to the memory of Trevor Bougill 2/2/87 - 8/17/12.