Friday, December 28, 2018

Everybody's Favorite Unknown Pianist: Jack Wilson's Easterly Winds

Someone once jokingly referred to Jack Wilson as “everyone’s favorite unknown jazz pianist.” It’s true, though, that for someone who recorded several albums for Blue Note and a number of other labels, Wilson doesn’t get much love from the wider jazz audience (if there is such a thing these days). I’ve sometimes wondered, only somewhat facetiously, if it’s because “Jack Wilson” is such a bland name. If his contemporaries had nicknamed him “Sonny” or “Fats,” maybe it would have raised his profile.

His profile is well worth raising, though. Take Easterly Winds, his second album for Blue Note, recorded in 1967. With a front line of Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, and the lamentably little-known Garnett Brown on Trombone, and a rhythm section of Bob Cranshaw and Billy Higgins, it has a lot going for it even before you hear the music.

Most of the compositions are Wilson’s, except for Frank Strozier’s Frank’s Tune and Johnny Mandel’s ballad A Time for Love, the latter of which features Wilson in a trio setting and highlights both his excellent technique and feeling. I really like Wilson the composer. Musicians looking for something fresh ought to investigate the title tune and Nirvanna, both of which have that spiritual jazz uplift feeling that means so much to me. Do It, the obligatory “let’s try for another Sidewinder” effort gets nice and funky, with a solid bop gutbucket solo by Brown. I’m a sucker for Jackie Mac’s astringent, passionate alto, and Lee Morgan’s contributions are, as always, a reminder of how much we lost when he died so young. On Children, with a crisp Billy Higgins opening, is another fine track.
Maybe Jack Wilson isn’t so neglected after all. In a couple of weeks, a previously unreleased set, Call Me -Jazz from the Penthouse, featuring Wilson and vibraphonist Roy Ayers, is coming out on CD, and based on their work together on other recordings, a great combination.

Here are Nirvanna and Easterly Winds for your delectation.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Yeah, I'm Talkin' to You: The Paragons Meet the Jesters

Long ago, when 42nd Street around Times Square in New York City was much seedier and way more real than it is now, there were a lots of discount places selling cameras, binoculars, Army surplus (known as “war surplus” back then), and records. Taped to the windows of the latter, and looking as if they’d been  up there for years, were LP album covers. One of the most striking was The Paragons Meet the Jesters. Against a murky background of indeterminate color stood black leather-jacketed hoods, a la Grease, with a shadowy, menacing figure to their front and right. I mean, these guys radiated attitude (see left).

The music was something else, though. Doo wop was a popular force in the 1950s and early 1960s. It was hugely influential on everyone from Robert Plant to Frank Zappa, and the progenitor of the great soulful Motown and Stax vocal groups of the following decades. It was also a regional music. Place like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, to name a few of the meccas of doo wop, were hotbeds, as was New York, the home of the Paragons and the Jesters. For years both groups had strong regional hits with records like Florence and Let’s Start All Over Again (the Paragons) and I Laughed and The Wind (the Jesters. In 1959, The Paragons Meet the Jesters, an anthology of Jesters and paragons singles came out as an LPone of the first rock and roll compilation albums and, according to Wikipedia, “the most commercially successful doo-wop compilation ever released.”

The album leans heavily toward ballads, although there are some fine up-tempo tunes, like I Laughed and Oh Baby by the Jesters. I’m partial to Julius McMichael’s great falsetto lead vocals for the Paragons, but I also love the greater variety the Jesters bring to the table. Both groups were terrific, and this recording is a landmark in the history of a unique American vocal style. Doo wop isn’t just an historical artifact or the background music for a Martin Scorsese movie. It’s great mixture of passion and humor, executed with panache by a bunch of kids who sang in the streets, got ripped off by their fly-by-night record companies in the great tradition, and left a legacy for all of us to enjoy.

P.S. Thanks to Eddie Griese and Donn Fileti of Relic Records, who for years worked to preserve the lost world of doo wop on LP and CD.

Here are two selections―and it was tough to pick just a couple. I hope you enjoy them and decide to explore this great music further.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Bill Henderson: Jazz with a Smiling Voice

I’ve been a Bill Henderson fan foreveror at least since the days when was Joey was in steady rotation on Symphony Sid’s midnight jazz show on WADO in New York City. I owned his first album on Vee Jay records, his Verve recording with Oscar Peterson, and have picked up various other recordings over the years. About 10 years ago, Henderson appeared at the Kennedy Center and I was all over it. He did a fine show and, amazingly, his voice was just as it was when he did Joeysomeone in the audience called it out as a request and Henderson laughed and said the requester was going WAY back. The guy sitting next to me summed it up: “He sounds exactly the same”!

You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Check out Bill Henderson’s last recording: Live at the Vic, made in 2007, just after he  turned 81. It’s not a great record just because his voice sounds so youthful, though. It's because his sound and phrasing are so delightful. The best way to put it is that Henderson always sang with a smile in his voicesometimes joyous, often wry, and occasionally melancholy, but always warmly there.  Some of the high points of this recording include a great version of Never Make Your Move Too Soon, an extraordinary extended version of That Old Black Magic, and some of his personal standards, like A Sleeping Bee and You Are My Sunshine. I haven’t enjoyed a jazz vocal album so much in a long time.

There’s not a whole lot from this album on line, but The Song is You is pretty representative. I hope you enjoy it and check out more Bill Henderson.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Night Lights, or Whatever Happened to Gerry Mulligan?

The bassist and raconteur Bill Crow once remarked that people don’t talk much about Gerry Mulligan any more. For veteran listeners, Mulligan was for many years a dominant force in the music: arranger for Claude Thornhill, the Birth of the Cool sessions, the pianoless quartet with Chet Baker, the concert big band, and record dates with everyone from Ben Webster to Dave Brubeck to Thelonious Monk. It’s true, though, maybe because Coltrane and Ornette took the music in a different direction and younger musicians followed suit. Remember how “West Coast jazz” was cool and then it wasn’t?

It’s a shame, though. Take Night Lights, for example.  In 1963, Mulligan, Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer, the aforesaid Bill Crow, and Dave Bailey put together a masterpiece of what could be called “late night jazz”subdued, worldly-wise, and subtly emotional. The album is a quest for classic beauty, which isn’t really much in style these days. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia on my part; it’s simply beautiful music. The title tune feature Mulligan on piano rather than baritone, with a bonus track of the same composition with him on clarinet. Art Farmer, especially on flugelhorn, is one of the most eloquent players ever. His tone, his choice of notes, and depth of feeling are always remarkable. Brookmeyer and hall fit the mood as well, with Crow and Bailey’s accompaniment in support. I’m not in the mood for analysis on this one―just listening.

Here's Festive Minor and Night Lights:

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Bobby Hutcherson: Smokin' at Montreux

Bobby Hutcherson and Woody Shaw aren’t obscure artists, but Bobby Hutcherson Live at Montreux is another story. Recorded in 1973 during Blue Note’s UA period, it was released on LP in 1974, but only in Europe. A CD version, with one additional track, was issued in 1994 and almost immediately relegated to the cutout bins, at least according to the comments over at Organissimo. A new Japanese CD reissue has finally made this excellent recording available.

My advice: pick this one up ASAP. Hutcherson is extraordinary, throughout, as is Woody. Cecil Bernard (later known as Hotep Idris Galeta) on piano gets some solo space, especially on Hutcherson’s Song of Songs, but he, Ray Drummond on bass, and Larry Hancock on drums mainly provide support to the main protagonists. High points include Woody’s The Moontrane and Hutcherson’s Song of Songs, but their work on all four tracks is smoking hot. It’s the best CD I’ve listened to in quite a while, so grab it while you have the chance.

Here’s The Moontrane.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Farewell to Aretha

Aretha Franklin transcended categories. She could do soul, R & B, gospel, jazz, and opera, but it all came out Aretha. Take, for example, her lightning fast take on the vocalese classic Moody's Mood for Love, which segues into a vintage Queen of Soul interlude before a big finish, including a shout out to Freddie Hubbard and James Moody. "I'm through." Rest easy, Aretha.

 Aretha Franklin, Moody's Mood for Love:

Saturday, July 21, 2018

John D'Earth: Restoration Comedy

In those faraway days when I lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, there wasn’t much of a jazz scene, which made performances by Cosmology at the Prism Coffeehouse such a treat. For whatever reason, I wasn’t aware that the band had put out an album on Vanguard recordsmaybe in those halcyon days, they didn’t feel the need to club their listeners over the head with commercials, or maybe I was just inattentive. In any case, Cosmology produced some fine fusion sounds. I guess John Abercrombie subsequently became the band’s most well-known alumnus, but trumpeter John D'Earth and his wife, vocalist Dawn Thompson, have continued to make a quieter splash from their Charlottesville home base.  

In the course of keeping track of D’Earth, years ago I picked up Restoration Comedy, a quintet date with Jerry Bergonzi on tenor, the much-missed Mulgrew Miller on piano, Mike Richmond on bass, and Howard Curtis on drums. With that line up, my expectations were relatively high and mainly well met. It turns out that D’Earth is a good composer as well as trumpet player.  Almost all of the compositions are his, and they reveal a gift for melody that’s just a tad off kilter, which makes the recording a step up from the standard hard bop session. Bergonzi and especially Miller rise to the occasion with some inventive playing, as does the leader. Verdict: Excellent.
I couldn’t find any links to Restoration Comedy, so I’ll close with some live D’Earth. Enjoy!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Spirit Free Plays Starship: From Las Vegas to Infinity

When I started this blog, one of my thoughts was to highlight the accomplishments of lesser-known or underappreciated creators. Spirit Feel Plays Starship may be my deepest dive yet into obscure music. In the 1960s, Ron Feuer (keyboards), Paul “Rick” Davis (tenor sax), and Santo Savino (drums), later joined by Orlando “Pepito” Hernandez (bass), earned their daily bread as Las Vegas show musicians while playing more spiritual, cutting-edge jazz during their off hours and in a few receptive clubs. In May 1971, Spirit Free played at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Jazz Festival, where the live tracks on the album were recorded. Supplemented by additional music performed at the engineer’s home studio, Spirit Feel Plays Starship was put out on vinyl and distributed locally to friends and family. After a few more years and a bigger-band Spirit Free ensemble, the musicians scattered and that was it.

Enter The Numero Group, a reissuer of off-trail or no-trail audio artifacts (one of their series is called “Eccentric Soul”enough said) that somehow found out about Spirit Free and put out this album on CD. I found out about it in the course of my habitual lurking on the Cranky Old Guys jazz bulletin board. Based on an enthusiastic recommendation there, I check the band out on YouTube and took a flyer on the whole thing. It’s great stuff. Davis is a hard-charging late Coltrane-inspired stylist, abetted by some fine, spacy Fender Rhodes keyboarding by Feuer and strong rhythmic support from Savino and Hernandez. Highlights include two versions of the title composition, Feuer’s Dear Latin Friend, and a wigged-out Starship, but the whole CD is strong, indeed. This recording is an object lesson in the vast amount of excellent music generated locally but, for a whole host of reasons, unable to break out to a wider audience. We owe thanks to the musicians, and to the Numero Group for putting this fine music out for a new audience to appreciate. It makes me want to explore the Numero catalog in more detail!

Here are Starship and Guardian Angel (only a few selections are available on YouTube).

Starship, short version:

Guardian Angel: