Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Roots of Georgie Fame: R & B, Soul, Ska, and Jazz

In one of those infinite universes out there, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones never made it big. Instead, the sounds of the British mods—1950s R & B, 1960s soul, ska, and hip jazz tunes—swept the world, led by my man Georgie Fame. I wouldn’t really want to do without the British invasion, but…

Because we have to operate in the universe we’re given, Georgie Fame, aka Clive Powell, remains a fine but relatively unheralded (at least in the U.S.) singer and organist who had a bunch of hits in the 60s and an excellent musical career in the years since. I’ve been a Fame fan since I first heard Yeh-Yeh, his biggest U.S. hit aside from The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde (not a favorite of mine). Years later, I picked up the U.S. pressing of his first studio album and subsequently have collected as many of his LPs and CDs as I could. I recently ordered an elaborate, five-CD box set of all of his 1960s recordings via Juno Records in the UK ( a good price and excellent service, I might add) and will be talking about it here in the near future.

Meanwhile, Ace Records has assembled a first-rate collection of originals that Georgie covered in his heyday: Georgie Fame Heard Them Here First. From soul (Sweet Thing by the Spinners in their lesser-known Motown days) to R & B (Pink Champagne by Joe Liggins and the Honey drippers) to obscure funky instrumentals (Soul Stomp by Earl van Dyke), and including Jamaican sound system classics (Dr. Kitch by Lord Kitchener—risqué!) and King Pleasure’s version of Eddie Jefferson’s jazz anthem Moody’s Mood for Love, Fame covered the best. Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Paul Anka (!) and more—this is a great anthology whether you dig Georgie or not. Ace does its usual fine job of annotating each track with interesting info, with lots of photos.Here are a couple of my personal favorites, from Mose Allison and Joe Hinton.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Dark Tree: Horace Tapscott, the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, and the Community Arts

A few months ago I picked up a copy of Stephen L. Isoardi’s The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles at our local library’s semiannual book sale.  I hadn’t heard of the book, but it was about  Horace Tapscott, a legendary figure in the West Coast avant-garde, came with a CD, and was only four bucks, so why not? Having just finished it, I’m here to say it’s an important read for anyone interested in the culture and politics of the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond; the evolution of spiritual jazz; and the ongoing racial and political issues it reflects. Beginning with a brief history of L.A.’s Central Avenue jazz and R & B scene in the 1940s, it recounts Tapscott’s lifelong commitment to the arts in the African-American community, his bringing together the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra and the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA), and their participation in a host of arts projects and organizations from before the Watts riots through the early 2000s.  The book, based mainly on interviews with about 100 Arkestra/UGMAA participants, also provides a glimpse at the personality of Tapscott himself, a charismatic yet modest person who was both a devoted family man and night-wandering bohemian (his wife Cecelia must have been a very patient woman).

This story resonated with me because of my own knowledge of how all of the arts became weapons in the Movement of the 1960s and 1970s against war, racism, and imperialism. The abundance of groups and efforts that were born and died in the struggles of those days come alive in Isoardi’s narrative, which also demonstrates how little I knew about this important segment of the jazz world —one that continues in various forms today. In a period of time during which the perennial issues of race, class, and the arts continue to haunt American society, it’s both depressing to see how little progress has been made and uplifting to see the persistence of efforts to make this country what it professes to be.

The accompanying CD contains a number of previously released recordings of the Arkestra and its various components.  It made me want to hear much more of this fine music. Here’s a sample.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Rein de Graaff and Gigi Gryce

Sometimes you start out in one direction and wind up somewhere else. Years ago I bought a record by Rein de Graaff, the Dutch pianist. Recently, I ran across a de Graaff CD I had bought with several others on the (also Dutch) Blue Jack label.  What I hadn’t remembered was that the CD, Blue Lights, was a tribute to the compositions of saxophonist Gigi Gryce. I knew about Gryce’s career in the late 1950s, his renown as a composer, his struggles on the business side of the music biz, and his sudden disappearance from the jazz scene. A few years ago, I read an article about his personal crisis, conversion to Islam, and lengthy career as a dedicated music teacher in an NYC public school. Aside from knowing the names of some of his compositions, like Social Call and Nica’s Tempo, that was it for me.

Thanks to Rein de Graaff and Blue Lights, I now appreciate Gryce’s compositions much more. I was particularly taken with Sans Souci and Evening in Casablanca. Both are impressionistic pieces in the Tadd Dameron mode, although Gryce must have visited Casablanca round midnight. Some tribute albums are slapdash affairs, but this one provides a well-thought-out showcase for a neglected composer.

The musicians are first rate. Altoist Herb Geller, on the scene since the 1950s, is fiery, with a bit of Johnny Hodges lyricism mixed in. John Marshall, like Geller an American expatriate, is excellent on trumpet. De Graaff solos and comps beautifully throughout, and Marius Beets and Eric Ineke on bass and drums furnish solid support.

Tadd Dameron once said, “There’s enough ugliness in the world. I’m interested in beauty,” and Blue Lights delivers. Here’s Minority.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Clarence Wheeler and the Enforcers: New Chicago Blues

For many years, Clarence Wheeler and the Enforcers were nothing more to me than a catchy name and a thumbnail album cover photo on the inner sleeves of some Atlantic LPs. Recently I got a chance to pick up Wheeler’s New Chicago Blues album at a bargain price and took the plunge. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I did some homework on the band and didn’t come up with much. They put out two albums from the 1969 and 1970 on Atlantic, then New Chicago Blues in 1972 (the Enforcers aren’t mentioned on the cover but several of them are present), and one more in1980.  Neither Wheeler nor the Enforcers have Wikipedia entries (in this day and age!). Aside from a thread on Organissimo, which includes a discography, there are a couple of online soul jazz/funk blog reviews, and that’s about it. All I can say is that based on the liner notes (by Wheeler) these guys were a Chicago band influenced by Gene Ammons, Eddie Harris, and the whole Chi-town music scene of the day.

It’s too bad, really, because New Chicago Blues provides a fine assortment of blues (Oblighetto, featuring Buddy Guy and Junior Wells), 70s soul (How Could I Let You Get Away), a fine Wheeler ballad performance (Don’t Go to Strangers), something with a Latin tinge (Kuumba) and some solid soul jazz (New Chicago Blues and Miss Gee). In addition to lots of Wheeler tenor, other band members featured include Sonny Burke and Kenny Price on organ, Frank Gordon and Sonny Covington on trumpet, and Billy James and others on drums and percussion. My guess is that Gordon solos on New Chicago Blues and Covington on the other tracks, but the liner notes don’t supply solo credits. I’m also guessing that it’s Sonny Burke who’s so strong on Miss Gee. If anyone has more info on these matters, let me know.

Here’s the title tune enjoy!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Ace/BGP: The Message: Soul, Funk, and Jazzy Grooves from Mainstream Records

America owes a debt of gratitude to Ace Records. For decades, this UK-based outfit and its subsidiary labels have hunted down, remastered, annotated, and repackaged jump blues, doowop, R &B, Northern soul, 50s and 60s sunshine pop, psychedelia, rock instrumentals, and a good amount of oddball stuff that together demonstrate the incredible richness of our nation’s musical history over the past six decades. Thanks to a familiar blend of corporate greed, negligence, and indifference, coupled with the nature of our ever more disposable culture, the U.S. often seems incapable of performing this important service.  

Take, for example, Ace’s resuscitation of Mainstream Records. Bob Shad was a veteran producer of jazz (Charlie Parker at Savoy, Clifford Brown and Sarah Vaughn at Mercury) who previously had run a small record label (Sittin’ In With) that put out some fine late 40s blues sides. He also dabbled in rock with his own Brent subsidiary and jazz with Time Records. On 1964, he started Mainstream, which for the rest of the 60s issued jazz and rock material. Ace has issued some his popsike stuff on a two-CD compilation and the straight jazz on another CD, along with individual albums by Blue Mitchell, Harold Land, and Hadley Caliman.

By 1970, though, that straight jazz was in one of its eternally recurrent declines, so Shad moved into soul jazz, recording both new vocalists like Ellerene Harding and Alice Clark as well as veteran musicians like Curtis Fuller and Charles Kynard in beat-laden contexts. The folks at Ace were canny enough to pick out this thread in the Mainstream tapestry and put together The Message: Soul, Funk, and Jazzy Grooves from Mainstream Records on the BGP (Beat Goes Public) label. As usual, it’s got a booklet containing a brief introductory essay, commentary on each track, and numerous photographs of the artists.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect when I bought this CD, so playing it was a bit of an adventure. After I played House of Rising Funk by Chubokos, I thought, “Pretty good!” by the time I got to Afrique’s cover of Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa, I was foot tapping and head bobbing too much to think about anything. Thanks to the notes by dean Rudland, I also knew that these two bands were the same group of studio/mainstream guys working under different names—thanks, Dean. There are so many great cuts on this record that it’s hard to know which ones I should call out. Funky Butt by the Delegates (another studio band, it got its name because the 1972 political conventions were going on at the time) features David T. Walker on guitar and Charles Kynard (also featured on a couple of other tracks) on Hammond B-3. Ellerine Harding kills To Whom It May Concern (All I Need), which also has a bit of a political slant (“I don’t need your study groups or your benign neglect” and “I don’t need your Doctor Jensens to study my IQ”).  Maxine Weldon really works out on Grits Ain’t Groceries, and Sarah Vaughn (!) gets a bit political AND spacy/funky on Inner City Blues (Make me Want to Holler).

Most of the tracks on The Message are instrumentals. The Jackson Five’s I Want You Back doesn’t seem to call for a 65-piece band named Bobby Shad & the Bad Men (if I ran a record company, I’d do my thing, too!) but it’s actually excellent—check out the dueling trumpets toward the end. Blue Mitchell and Curtis Fuller manage their funk quite nicely, and lots of great jazz artists pop up throughout (Don Pullen on the B-3 for Charles Williams’s Bacon Butt Fat?  Why not? Anyway, he acquits himself nobly.

OK, I’m totally taken with The Message. (I do wish that Blue Mitchell had played a little more on the title track, but you can’t have everything.) Ace has uncovered and revived a trend and some artists that I didn’t know about, as well as others with whom I was familiar but in a new context. I’ll leave you with Patience by Dave Hubbard, one of the former, who played on many organ trio dates for Prestige and other labels but recorded only this one Mainstream album commercially. It features Albert Dailey, one of Stan Getz’s favorite pianists, in an un-Getzian bit of post-Trane funk. Sadly, when I Googled Hubbard, I learned that he had died just a few days ago, so this appreciation is also a tribute to him. I hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Prestige Records: Shirley Scott/Blue Seven

A lot of people revere the Blue Note label, and rightfully so, but I’m a Prestige guy. Aside from being located in New Jersey, my natal state, Bob Weinstock’s record company put out a slew of great music in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Early recordings by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins; music by older jazz artists on Prestige  Swingsville and older blues artists on Prestige Bluesville; more cutting-edge material by people like Eric Dolphy and  Steve Lacy on New Jazz; and a seemingly endless array of soul jazz—all came from the little giant in Bergenfield, NJ. Weinstock has had his share of detractors, but he wasn’t the only music business figure that sometimes indulged in sharp financial practices. As for the “junkie label” libel, the same could have been said of any independent jazz record label of the day (and the major labels, too). The fact remains that Prestige put out a ton of great jazz and blues that still speaks to us today. For this reason, I’m starting a series of posts about Prestige albums drawn from my ever-expanding stash of CDs and LPs (yup, I’m a Stone Ager for sure).

Today’s pick is Shirley Scott’s Blue Seven. Scott recorded quite a bit with Prestige, often featuring her then-husband Stanley Turrentine.  For this date, she used a quintet featuring Joe Newman on trumpet and Oliver Nelson on tenor. I love Nelson’s playing—it’s too bad he moved more into composing and arranging, but that’s where the money was. To me, his expressive tenor work always conveys a slight, pleasing tinge of melancholy, which fits in with the bluesy tone of this recording. Newman, who was one of the stars of the second Basie band, plays with a seamless blend of bop and swing that made him fit into any setting. The record includes the title track, by Sonny Rollins, an extended workout on Wagon Wheels, no doubt copped from Sonny’s Way Out West album), a nice version of Nancy (with the Laughing Face), and an up-tempo Give me the Simple Life. Scott plays inventively throughout—I need to listen to more of her. George Tucker (bass) and Roy Brooks (drums) provide strong support but don’t get any solo space. 

The verdict: a relaxed date, great for some laid-back listening. I just wish they had done more up-tempo tunes, though—Give me the Simple Life was my favorite track. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Elin — From Sweden to Brazil and Manhattan with Love

A few years ago, I was listening to WBGO—one of Newark, New Jersey’s many gifts to jazz—and heard a song by “Elin.” It had a romantically hypnotic lilt to it, often repeating the word “sweetness” as a kind of grail to seek and find, both universally and personally. I heard it only a couple of times, but it really stayed with me.  Recently, as sometimes happens, Elin suddenly popped into my mind. I found some of her stuff on YouTube, tracked down her web page, and bought her first and so far only album. It turns out she was raised in Sweden, came to the U.S. to go to college, and then learned Portuguese, all the while aiming at a career as a jazz singer.

Elin’s Lazy Afternoon is a spicy stew of jazz and Brazilian music knit together by Elin’s strong multilingual vocals. She does a great job of turning Fascinating Rhythm into the Brazilian song it always should have been, does an especially languorous version of the title tune, and nails songs by Tom Jobim, Dori Caymmi, and Milton Nascimento. The “Sweetness” song turned out to be Sugar, an Elin original, and it still does me in. She also sings a gorgeous version of Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life. As a bonus, she’s backed by a strong suite of jazz musicians, including Claudio Roditi on trumpet and fluegelhorn, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Harry Allen on tenor, and Hendrick Muerkens on vibes.

To give you a taste of her Portuguese side, here’s Milton Nascimento’s Vera Cruz. Enjoy!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Happy Halloween from Philly Joe!

From his first album as leader, a composition by Johnny Griffin and  a classic monologue by Philly Joe, inspired by Lenny Bruce. Enjoy!