Saturday, September 15, 2012

Anita O'Day in depth Part 5

Picking up from where I left off in Anita O'Day in depth Part 4, this post will cover some of Anita's albums that are off the beaten path. First up is this gem: Bigbands Live: Benny Goodman Orchestra featuring Anita O'Day

I accidentally came across this gem while looking for something completely different. A quick listen to the sound samples on this page convinced me. What a delightful surprise and some amazing music.

There are short sound samples on this page, so you can let your own ears determine if this is for you. What those samples will not tell you is which of the tracks contains Anita because she does not come in until after the intros in the samples. She is on these tracks:

  • Honeysuckle Rose
  • Come Rain or Come Shine
  • Let Me Off Uptown
  • Gotta Be This Or That
  • Girl Crazy, Act II: But Not for Me/Four Brothers/Blues
Here is a clip from the album that gives a taste of what to expect:

It's uncertain whether Anita was supposed to be on Gotta Be This Or That. It starts off with Benny singing, then forgetting the lyrics and trying to scat is way through the rest. That alone is priceless, but when Anita joins in and 'rescues' him the song takes on a life of its own.

Let Me Off Uptown lacked the fire of Anita's performances with Roy Eldridge, but was still a great addition to the album.

The rest of the ensemble was comprised of Russ Freeman on piano, Red Norvo on vibes, Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Flip Phillips on tenor sax, Bill Harris on trombone, Jerry Dodgion on flute, Jimmy Wyble on guitar, Red Wootton on bass and John Markham on drums.

Norvo's quiet, vibrato-less style of playing is a marked contrast to Lionel Hampton's aggressive, full vibrato playing which is usually associated with Benny's clarinet. However, it perfectly fit the ensemble. I was also impressed by John Markham's drumming, which reminded me a lot of Anita's own drummer, John Poole (who was on the tour as Anita's manager.)

For those who track dates, places and other details of jazz performances, this was about mid way through Goodman's 1959 European tour, which kicked off in Munich on 3 October 59. This album is the Stadthalle-Freiburg performance of 15 October, a week before the tour ended.

Here is the same ensemble three months later back in the US. In this clip Gene Dinovi replaces Russ Freeman on piano, however the same energy is exhibited and this is another indication of the quality of music on the album:

Anita discussed this tour and problems she and Benny had in Chapter XI, pages 244-246 of High Times Hard Times. Benny never liked being upstaged and therein was the cause of the clash. That, plus Benny was straight-laced and Anita was truly the Jezebel of jazz and a strong personality in her own right. When Benny informed her to not show up for one of the performances on the tour she threatened to quit, so he pared down her performances to just two songs per appearance. Given the fact that this album contains five songs, it must have been recorded before the clash.

There are two other albums from this tour: In Stockholm 1959, from 18 October 59 with a smoking performance of Four Brothers with Stan Getz who sat in, and An Airmail Special From Berlin 1959 from 22 October. Both are worth checking out if you enjoy this one.

The next album that I consider a hidden gem is Anita O'Day And The Three Sounds

When this album was cut in 1963 with The Three Sounds (a popular trio from that era), it was not widely accepted by fans. I'll be honest - I was also lukewarm the first few times I listened to this album. It seemed to lack that ineffable quality and verve (no pun intended) that Anita brought to her performances, both live and in the studio.

My first thought was to make a wine analogy where some of my favorite O'Day albums were like a complex Valpolicella whereas this one was line the second glass of a table wine. In the first you could savor the nuances; in the second the complexity and nuances were not really there, but you still felt good. After many hours of enjoying this album, though, I realize my wine analogy was not only glib and snobbish, but off the mark. The Three Sounds did a remarkable job in supporting Anita's vocals in my opinion. Some may call it bland or even elevator music. I call it masterful because there is a nice swing and sensitive playing by the entire ensemble.

Gene Harris' piano reminds me a lot of Ahmad Jamal. There is a lot of space, and to extend the comparison further, Andrew Simpkins' bass fills in nicely the way Israel Crosby complemented Jamal in their trio playing. The wild card in the ensemble, in my opinion, is Bill Dowdy on drums. Bear in mind that not only am I a drummer who is going to naturally pay close attention to that instrument in recordings, but I am heavily influenced by John Poole, who was Anita's drummer for nearly four decades. Dowdy's playing is vastly different from Poole's, but is also very tasteful and fit the music on each track perfectly (to my ears anyway.)

The real treat and - for me - a highlight is Whisper Not, which features Roy Eldridge playing a muted trumpet solo. When I first heard the solo it immediately stood out because the album is mainly centered around Anita backed by a piano trio. When I looked up who played it took my breath away because it transported me mentally back to her Krupa days when she and Eldridge would do duets.

Another favorite is this track from the album because it showcases Anita's voice and the Three Sounds:

There is a subdued quality to Anita's vocals on this album too. In some ways she seems to be missing that joie de vivre - joy of life - quality. In other ways, she seems centered and at the beginning of a long, gradual transformation.

Perhaps I have rambled on long enough. The best way to determine if this album is for you is to listen to the sound samples on this page. They will give a tantalizing taste, but I found the real beauty of each track to be many bars into each song.

This album is the one in which I discovered the Three Sounds and because a solid fan. If you like the way they back Anita, I recommend checking out The three Sounds Eight Classic Albums.

The final gem I'll discuss in this post is a collaboration between Anita and Cal Tjader titled, Time For Two

Cream rises to the top and this album is the cream from Anita's Verve years in my opinion. While the bulk of her recordings from those years were in orchestral settings, this and a handful of others capture Anita in her best setting - a small ensemble.

In addition to the setting, another factor that makes this album the cream of the crop and a showcase is Cal Tjader's leadership of the backing ensemble. The musicians were Cal Tjader and Johnny Rae handling vibes and percussion, Bob Corwin and Lonnie Hewitt switching off on piano and Freddy Schrieber on bass.

Part of the reason for the success of this album is the shared traits between him and Anita. He was not only an acclaimed vibraphonist, but also an accomplished drummer and percussionist. Anita had a lifelong affinity for drummers, starting with the lessons she received from her first husband, Don Carter, as well as her lifelong collaboration and friendship with John Poole who was her drummer for well over three decades.

In addition to that point of musical intersection, Tjader brought to this album a strong sense of Afro-Cuban rhythms, as well as the ability to play laid back, straight-ahead jazz. The former played directly into Anita's percussive singing style, while the latter was a major comfort zone for Anita. I won't attempt to describe the music since there are sound samples on this page, but I will cite two examples of music that showcase both the Latin and the straight-ahead pieces on this album: An Occasional Man for the former and I'm Not Supposed to Be Blue Blues for the latter. The chasm between those two styles is why I claimed that the album showcases Anita's versatility. Here is a clip that gives a flavor of the infectious Latin side of the album:

A few notes about the backing ensemble: Tjader's vibe style is - to my ears - very similar to Red Norvo. It's light, airy and virtually no vibrato. That style spills over to the rest of the ensemble. The music itself comes across as simple. However, if you consider just how few musicians are present their ability to make the backing ensemble sound much larger is a feat in itself. Not only that, but they perfectly support Anita, providing her with a rhythmic platform that leaves the melody to her and Tjader's vibraphone.

One final clip from the album to savor:

Of all of Anita's Verve albums, the two that I think rise to the top for small group excellence is this one and Anita O'Day And The Three Sounds discussed above. For pure magic, though, this one is my favorite.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Sonny Rollins: Living National Treasure part 2

In keeping with my theme of music for drummers, this post will follow up Sonny Rollins: Living National Treasure by providing three more listening recommendations.

First up is Plays For Bird, one of Sonny's lesser known 1956 masterpieces that he recorded on 5 October 1956, four months after Saxophone Colossus.

Personnel on this album are Sonny on tenor, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Wade Legge on piano, George Morrow on bass and Max Roach on drums. The album was a tribute to Charlie Parker and featured songs with which he was strongly associated. Each track is a study in dynamics, rhythm, melody and harmony, and - as always - Max Roach's drumming approach is masterful. The longest track, a medley clocking in a few seconds short of 27 minutes, covers a wide range of songs: I Remember You/My Melancholy Baby/Old Folks/They Can't Take That Away From Me/Just Friends/My Little Suede Shoes/Star Eyes. The way the musicians seamlessly segue from one to the next is why I included this track and also why I recommend this album:

Next is one of Sonny's first recordings as a leader. It was recorded in 1953, but not released until 1956: Sonny Rollins with The Modern Jazz Quartet

The album cover may seem confusing with a much older Rollins depicted, so I am including the original cover for reference:

What makes this album special is the personnel changes on the various tracks. And as a drummer,being able to compare and contrast the playing of Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes on a single album is a treat. The first four tracks is Sonny accompanied by the first edition of the Modern Jazz Quartet: John Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass Kenny Clarke on drums. Here is Track 2:

Tracks 5 through 12 is Sonny backed by Kenny Drew on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Track 7 is a good representation of their contribution to the album:

The final track is interesting in that Miles Davis is on piano. Percy Heath is still on bass, with Roy Haynes on drums:

My final recommendation (in this post anyway) is Moving Out

Perhaps I am biased because Thelonious Monk is on one of the tracks, but this 1954 album ranks up there with Saxophone Colossus as far as I am concerned. That, of course, is only a personal opinion.

You have an excellent opportunity to study Percy Heath and Art Blakey interacting on bass and drums, with Elmo Hope on piano completing the rhythm section. And, of course, the interplay between Kenny Dorham's trumpet and Sonny's tenor is the core of the album. On the last track when Monk takes over piano with Tommy Potter on bass and Art Taylor on drums, you can compare rhythm sections backing Sonny and Kenny. Here is the Monk/Potter/Taylor track:

Compare to a track with Hope/Heath/Blakey as the rhythm section (and note Sonny's gorgeous tone on this tune):

I will end with a clip of Rollins in Denmark, 1965, with another national treasure - Alan Dawson - on drums and The Great Dane with the Never-Ending Name, Niels-Henning ├śrsted Pedersen on bass. This performance exemplifies Rollins' piano-less trio format.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sonny Rollins: Living National Treasure

While writing Early Coltrane: A study in dynamics and evolution of jazz and a short follow-up This Trane fell through the cracks I had a nagging feeling that I needed to mention Sonny Rollins.

Although I had the opportunity to dig deeper, I did not want to dilute Coltrane's accomplishments, so this post is going to focus on Rollins. A good starting point is this excellent BBC documentary about Sonny:

That Rollins and Coltrane were mutual admirers is amply shown in This Trane fell through the cracks. While they shared many things in common, including both starting on alto before taking up tenor, there were key differences between the two. A key difference is how Rollins would keep reinventing himself, while Coltrane evolved in a seamless, almost logical way to musical concepts that continue to exert major influence on all genres of music.

Rollins' influence, while perhaps not as far reaching across genres, is significant within jazz and has reached audiences who would not consider themselves to be jazz aficionados.

As a musician you will find him worth studying because of his highly rhythmic style, which he established as early as 1957 with his ground breaking piano-less trio format. The composition or that format was a drummer and bassist. If you are a drummer or bassist, then I need not tell you how valuable his recordings in that format are for studying importance of bass in an ensemble. Two excellent 1957 albums that showcase this format are A Night At The Village Vanguard and Way Out West. Here is a clip from the afternoon set from the A Night At The Village Vanguard album. The album is divided into two sets: afternoon featuring Pete LaRoca on drums and Don Bailey on bass and evening featuring Elvin Jones on drums and Wilbur Ware on bass. Here is Miles Davis' Four with Laroca and Bailey:

It's easy to judge fast tempo music like Four, but a real test of a piano-less trio - in my opinion - is how well they handle ballads and slower tempo material. This track from Way Out West features the great Ray Brown on bass and the equally great Shelly Manne on drums:

As innovative as the two albums mentioned are, Rollins will forever be remembered by two others: Tenor Madness and Saxophone Colossus.

Tenor Madness: This 1956 album preceded another landmark Rollins' masterpiece, Saxophone Colossus, and is also an important album because of the collaboration between Rollins and John Coltrane on the title track.

Other personnel on this album were Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. John Coltrane is only on track 1, Tenor Madness.

Twelve minutes of Rollins and Coltrane on track 1 is reason enough to own this album. Hear for yourself:

However, there are no duds among all of the tracks. A bit of trivia: Paul's Pal was written in honor of Paul Chambers (whose bass on this album is worth a close listen, as is Red Garland's piano.) Indeed, the entire line-up is like a Miles Davis reunion, and Chambers and Coltrane would go on to be members of the ensemble that recorded one of the best selling jazz albums of all time, Kind Of Blue.

Recorded the same year as his earllier Masterpiece, Tenor Madness, Rollins hits another one out of the park with this album.

The line-up here is completely different from Tenor Madness, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Doug Watkins on bass and Max Roach on drums. Watkins is a bassist to whom I pay close attention, which makes this album all the more valuable to me. He was Charles Mingus choice to replace himself (so he could play piano) on Oh Yeah, and had Watkins not died at 27 he had the potential to be one of jazz's top bassists.

Of course Saint Thomas is the reason most non-jazz aficionados love this album. Instead of providing a clip of that song from the album I am going to include one of my favorite live performances with a different line-up as an example. My reason is the interplay between the great Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass and Tootie Heath on drums is a study in importance of bass, and especially with respect to Rollins' own contribution to the rhythm. Kenny Drew is on piano:

As much as I love St. Thomas, my personal favorites from the album are are Moritat (also known as Mack the Knife) and Blue 7.

However, personal favorites aside, I hold every track on this album to be a masterpiece. Not a bad effort for a 26 year old who had previously that year made a landmark album that would be hard to top. Whether he managed to top those achievements is an argument that I'll leave to others. What he did in the ensuing 56 years is continue to perform, inspire and make an indelible mark on music. I am going to end this post with later performances and leave it to you to explore his music throughout its many reinventions.