Saturday, March 17, 2018

Jazz Flashes Videocast: Will Friedwald's Best Books on Jazz and Classic Pop

Anyone who has read my posts here in Jazz Flashes and in my other blog, The Vintage Bandstand, especially those that deal with vocal jazz, classic pop, and the crooners, is aware of my admiration for the work of New York-based critic Will Friedwald. To me, Mr. Friedwald is an authority on the subjects of classic pop and vocal jazz, and all his books are an absolute pleasure to read because of the depth of his knowledge, the wide variety and scope of information they include, and the incomparable wit of his writing style.

I've been following Mr. Friedwald's work since the 1990s, when I first ran across a copy of his eye-opening study, Jazz Singing, and I've read nearly all his works, from his exploration of twelve of the greatest songs from the Songbook (Stardust Melodies) to the biography of Tony Bennett that he wrote in tandem with the singer (The Good Life) to his volumes on the music of Warner Bros. cartoons to his mammoth (and indispensable) Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers. Mr. Friedwald is also the author of Sinatra! The Song Is You, which, in my opinion, is by far the best book ever written about the music and the recorded legacy of Frank Sinatra. His latest work, The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums, is yet another necessary addition to the shelves of any serious vocal jazz aficionado. It's a collection of essays on some of the most influential vocal jazz and classic pop albums that will have readers dusting the records off and listening to them under a new, different light. Mr. Friedwald is a very persuasive writer, never afraid to offer his personal opinion on a given LP, artist, or arrangement, and even though we may not always agree with his view on a particular point, more often than not, we'll find ourselves rethinking our own approach to each specific album after reading what he has to say about it.

As a personal tribute to a writer from whom I've learned a great deal and who has been a primary influence when it came to discovering or rediscovering this or that artist or album, I've recently recorded a videocast whose aim is to review briefly my five favorite books by Mr. Friedwald. It's really not my intention to rank them, so I simply talk about them in chronological order of publication, beginning with Jazz Singing and ending with The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums. For anyone willing to understand vocal jazz and classic pop or to gain a deeper knowledge of both subjects, Mr. Friedwald's work is undoubtedly the place to start. I'd like to express my sincerest gratitude to Mr. Friedwald for the marvelous books that he's been producing for many years now, and I hope the video will serve as a fitting introduction to his work for many readers of Jazz Flashes.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

New Releases: Inspiration, by the Marc Devine Trio

After a brief hiatus, Jazz Flashes returns with a review of an excellent trio album released just a few months ago.

His first CD as a leader finds pianist Marc Devine in a trio setting and in a company in which he feels extremely comfortable and relaxed: bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, whose pedigree is impeccable if we bear in mind that they've worked with illustrious names such as Junior Mance and Lou Donaldson respectively. The album, recorded in April 2017 and simply entitled Inspiration (ITI Records), amounts to an outstanding calling card that underscores Devine's straight-ahead approach, with more than a hint of bebop and hard bop but always full of swing and extremely listenable. Devine moved to NYC in 2009 after establishing a solid reputation as a top-notch jazz pianist in Austin, TX, and since settling in the Big Apple, he has been contributing to several recordings and making personal appearances at renowned clubs such as Smalls, forming productive associations with different musicians on the New York scene and now getting to cut some sides fronting his own trio.

And the music on Devine's first album as a leader is, indeed, inspired and shows the breadth of his influences. The collection opens with the trio's swinging take on Hank Mobley's perennial "Soul Station," whose bluesy riffs become the perfect vehicle for some soulful playing from the pianist. No less soulful, though with perhaps more of an accent on swing and bop, is Devine's only original composition here, "Inspiration," which does seem inspired by the hard bop sounds of Barry Harris and includes brief solos by Tanaka and Tainaka. The Great American Songbook also has its place on the album via a lightly swinging rendition of the Johnny Mercer standard, "Dream," followed by "Vignette," a lesser-known gem by Hank Jones that Devine unearths for the occasion—and rightly so. Bud Powell is yet another of Devine's inspirations, as we can hear on his lively version of Powell's "Hallucinations," which also features a marvelous bowed solo by Tanaka.

The Marc Devine Trio (Photo: Peter Shepherd)
Devine has a knack for finding the swing that lies under the melody in the unlikeliest places, as on Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," which, in Devine's hands doesn't sound anything like a Shirelles tune but swings nonchalantly in a manner that is reminiscent of Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner. Similarly, Elvis Presley's ballad, "Love Me Tender," is another seemingly odd choice that somehow works perfectly when taken at an ultra-slow pace that renders it almost minimalist. Osie Johnson's "Osmosis" is the exact opposite: as vertiginous as it gets on the album, this is an extremely appropriate closer that leaves the listener hungry for more. In short, Marc Devine's debut album at the helm of his trio lives up to its title, and with its right doses of swing and bop, the excellent rapport between the musicians, and the variety of the tune selections, it's one of the best and most engaging trio albums I've heard in a very long time.

Further Information

For more information about the Marc Devine Trio, including upcoming live gigs, please visit Devine's website here.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Jazz Flashes Podcast - Malcolm Macfarlane on Bing Crosby's Christmas Recordings

Despite the size and depth of his recorded output, forty years after his passing on a golf course in Madrid, Spain, Bing Crosby is still mostly remembered by the general public for his holiday recordings, especially the many he made for Decca Records between the 1930s and 1940s. These are classic readings of tunes that have become popular Yuletide standards, such as "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," and most of all, Irving Berlin's "White Christmas." Several years ago I wrote about these here.

Malcolm Macfarlane, co-editor of the ICC's BING Magazine
As the holiday season approaches, I've had the chance to sit down with my friend Malcolm Macfarlane, British co-editor of BING Magazine, the journal of the International Club Crosby, to discuss at length the importance of Crosby's Christmas output. On this new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast, Malcolm and I cover Bing's classic Decca sides, but we also delve into his holiday movies (1942's Holiday Inn and 1954's White Christmas), Christmas radio and television specials, and other holiday albums he made in the 1960s and 1970s, including I Wish You a Merry Christmas (1962) and A Time to Be Jolly (1971). All of these are the perfect records to get in a holiday mood Crosby-style. If you're interested in listening to our whole 75-minute program, it's available at the end of this post.

Like every year, Jazz Flashes would like to wish our entire readership around the world the happiest (and jazziest) of holidays! Thanks for your attention!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Frank D'Rone on Mercury, 1960

Singer Frank D'Rone is perhaps one of the most obscure but definitely one of the most swinging vocalists of the 1950s and '60s. When he passed away in 2013 at age 81, his obituary in the Chicago Tribune noted that on the day he gave his last concert, he "didn't know whether he should go to the emergency room or the concert hall." Such was D'Rone's devotion to music. Born in Massachusetts in 1932 but raised in Rhode Island, D'Rone developed an early interest in the guitar, and by the early '50s he was making a name for himself in jazz clubs around Chicago, both as a singer and as a guitarist. Nat King Cole was particularly impressed by D'Rone's musicianship, to such an extent that he took the younger singer under his wing and helped him get a recording contract with Mercury.

In his book Jazz Singing, critic Will Friedwald observes that "D'Rone has a forties-type voice . . . in a fifties Capitol F[rank] S[inatra] setting . . . and generates genuine warmth" (331). This Sinatra connection is particularly evident in the album After the Ball, recorded in 1960, partly because the vivacious arrangements are by Billy May. The twelve songs on the LP are loosely tied by the concept of an imaginary conversation between two lovers who have just attended a dance. Perhaps not enough to speak of a concept album in the strict sense of the term, but the set works extremely well because both the songs and the charts are top notch, and the tracks range from a high-octane swinging reading of an old chestnut like Charles K. Harris's "After the Ball" to versions of well-known standards such as "My Melancholy Baby" and Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to," and even more contemporary tunes like Bart Howard's "Let Me Love You" and Matt Dennis's excellent "Will You Still Be Mine." Whether he's singing an all-out swinger or a longing ballad, the warmth of D'Rone's voice shines through as he, according to the anonymous liner notes, "re-lives the whole early-morning romance vocally." This is most definitely an album in need of rediscovery, and so is the name on its cover—Frank D'Rone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Spike Robinson Live in Denver, 1991

Spike Robinson
A recent post about tenorist Spike Robinson in Marc Myers's blog JazzWax made me dust off my Robinson records and enjoy them all over again after several years. And I have many, all of them wonderful, because as Myers rightly says, "there are no bad Spike Robinson recordings." Born in Kenosha, WI, in 1930, Robinson didn't pursue a full-time career as a jazz musician until he was in his fifties. His job as a mechanical engineer paid the bills, and he simply played occasionally at nights in Colorado, mostly in the Boulder and Denver areas. He'd begun on alto saxophone and clarinet but later switched to tenor, and his playing was cast in the Four Brothers mold of Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Stan Getz. Robinson had a knack for ballads, but no matter what he plays, his warm tone always shines through. While in the Navy in the 1950s, he found himself in England, where he collaborated with some of the best British jazz musicians of the time, such as Victor Feldman and Johnny Dankworth, and where he even got to make his first records. Upon his return to civilian life in the United States, Robinson settled into his job as an engineer and wouldn't record again until about three decades later. His tours of the United Kingdom and other European countries in the 1980s created such a stir that he decided to quit his job and move there, making constant live appearances and recording quite prolifically for a variety of labels such as Capri, Hep, and Concord. Robinson passed away in England in 2001 at age 71.

Guitarist Mundell Lowe

One of my favorite albums by Robinson, Reminiscin' (Capri Records, 1992), captures him live at the Jazz Works in Denver in December 1991, in the company of guitarist Mundell Lowe, bassist Monty Budwig (one of his last appearances on record), and drummer Jake Hanna. This pianoless quartet setting brings out the Getz-like qualities of Robinson's playing, and both dates (December 12 and 15) find him exploring the higher registers of the tenor saxophone. The eight selections (all of them standards plus a bluesy original by Robinson) clock in at over six minutes, with plenty of opportunities for everyone to show their skills, particularly the leader and Lowe, who engage in long solos with the strong support of Budwig's bass. There are a quite a few peppy mid-tempo numbers, like the opener, "Dancing in the Dark," "The Girl Next Door," "Yours Is My Heart Alone," and a charming, Latin-flavored reading of "Without You." The excellent ballad "My Silent Love" is taken at a faster tempo than usual, but the album also showcases Robinson's breathy, Lester Young-influenced approach to slow tunes on Cole Porter's "Dream Dancing" and Rodgers and Hart's "Where or When." The album closer, Robinson's own "Blues for Sooz," is the perfect vehicle for the quartet to effortlessly delve into the blues idiom and simply have some fun playing together. Though rather forgotten today, Spike Robinson is one of the best saxophonists of the 1980s and '90s and deserves to be heard because he indeed never made a bad album.

Friday, August 11, 2017

New Releases: Roger Davidson's Prayer for Tomorrow (with interview)

French-born American jazz pianist Roger Davidson has spent his whole career dabbling in several different kinds of music, from Caribbean to tango to classical. But his true passion, both personally and musically, has always been Brazil, as we can infer from his latest album, Oração para amanhã/Prayer for Tomorrow (Soundbrush Records, 2017). Davidson was born in Paris but soon moved to the United States and settled in the northeast, where he has been performing throughout his life. His music, always inventive and eclectic, has merited the enthusiastic approval of renowned jazz critics such as Will Friedwald, who has written that Davidson's new record features "brilliant musicians [and] great music."

Hendrik Meurkens
Davidson, who started his own label, Soundbrush, as an outlet to release different types of music that he enjoys and is passionate about, is surrounded here by some of the best Brazilian musicians on the current New York scene. Recorded live at NYC's Zinc Bar over the course of several dates in May and October 2016, the album finds Davidson in the company of his new trio—bassist Eduardo Belo and drummer Adriano Santos. The addition of the German-born Hendrik Meurkens on harmonica and vibraphone is welcome indeed, particularly since it brings variety and class to the proceedings with the inclusion of an instrument, the harmonica, that one doesn't get to hear often enough on jazz records these days.

The album showcases twelve of Davidson's new Brazilian-styled compositions whose freshness and diversity of rhythms and approaches always keep the listener interested. The interplay between the four participants is flawless and always full of little surprises here and there, and Meurkens's vibraphone and harmonica blend perfectly well with the overall sound of the trio, making it fuller and more attractive. Prayer for Tomorrow is a welcome addition to the catalog of Davidson's Brazilian outings (The 2003 Richard Rodgers songbook Rodgers in Rio is another good example of what the pianist can do with Brazilian rhythms) and will definitely leave the listener longing for more. Fortunately, Davidson is already working on more music in a similar vein with this same trio. A few weeks ago, Davidson joined us from a French restaurant in New York for a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Podcast. You may listen to the whole conversation, which was extremely interesting despite some minor technical issues, here:

Monday, July 10, 2017

Billy Taylor and Quincy Jones's Jazzy Take on My Fair Lady, 1957

Though perhaps he isn't as well remembered today as his achievements deserve, the career of North Carolina piano man Billy Taylor was full of milestones: in the 1950s he worked as house pianist at New York's Birdland; in the 1960s he became the first black musical director of a major network television program, on the popular David Frost Show; and in the 1970s, he earned a doctorate in music from the University of Massachusetts. Taylor was also very involved in spreading the good news about jazz on the radio and on television, but he always found time to play live and enter the studio regularly for over fifty years, recording a respectable amount of albums for labels such as Prestige, Savoy, Impulse, and Capitol, among others. Born in Greenville in 1921, Taylor moved to NYC in the early 1940s playing and sometimes recording alongside great jazzmen like Slam Stewart, Ben Webster, and violinists Stuff Smith and Eddie South. While working at Birdland, he formed his first trio, the setting in which he felt most comfortable throughout his career, and cut his first of many records as a leader. Taylor passed away in New York in 2010 at age 89, leaving behind a solid musical legacy that's in need of rediscovery.

Those who have criticized Taylor for not being innovative enough should listen closely to what I consider to be his best album—My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, recorded for Impulse in NYC over the course of three separate sessions in January and February 1957. This was at a time when the successful show by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe had been running on Broadway for about a year, and in fact, there was even a release party for the LP that was attended by most of the theatrical cast. Taylor's trio features bassist Earl May and drummer Ed Thigpen, but it's augmented for this project by several excellent horn players like trumpeter Ernie Royal, baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, altoist Tony Ortega, and trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, to mention just four. The horns, arranged by none other than Quincy Jones, are a perfect complement for the elegant sound of Taylor's trio, which they enrich greatly. This is evident from the very first bars of the opening track, "Show Me," which also features Royal on trumpet prominently, and the rest of selections always leave room for solos by Taylor and his guests—Ortega shines on the ballad "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and Cleveland contributes a fine solo to the bouncy "Get Me to the Church on Time," for instance. Jones's charts underscore the jazz elements of great tunes like "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "On the Street Where You Live" without straying too far away from the melodies, and Taylor obviously feels extremely comfortable in the company of May and Thigpen, for whom he only has words of praise in the liner notes. The result is classic, boppish Taylor, a thoroughly satisfying album that serves as the perfect introduction to his music. Other jazz treatments of My Fair Lady, like those by Shelly Manne (for Contemporary, 1956, with André Prévin and Leroy Vinnegar) and Chet Baker (his 1959 Lerner & Loewe songbook for Riverside), may be better known, but Taylor's approach to that memorable musical is one of the most interesting ever recorded.