Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Paul Desmond with Strings, 1961

There are many adjectives one can use to describe Desmond Blue, altoist Paul Desmond's 1961 date with strings subtly arranged by Bob Prince. The album is moody, soft, and restrained. Desmond's playing is imaginative and soothing, and Prince's string arrangements serve as a sort of cushion, never getting in the way of the soloist. But, most of all, the adjective that comes most readily to mind when listening to Desmond Blue is beautiful, and sometimes one is simply in the mood to listen to jazz that is beautiful. If that's the case, then one can't go wrong with this album. Best remembered for his association with pianist Dave Brubeck, of whose very successful quartet he was an integral part in the 1950s and '60s, Desmond cut several excellent albums under his own name throughout his collaboration with Brubeck. Six of these were recorded for RCA Victor in the sixties, and fortunately, they were reissued in 2012 as a very attractive and affordable box set that reproduces the format of the original LPs, though adding some bonus tracks. And the first of these albums chronologically is Desmond Blue.

Jim Hall and Paul Desmond
Recorded in New York City over the course of several sessions in September and October 1961, Desmond Blue was released in 1962 and, as its cover proudly states, it presents "a great saxophonist in a new setting." This new setting is, of course, Desmond accompanied by a string orchestra and performing a selection of well-known standards and two originals, "Desmond Blue" and "Late Lament," both of them included on the first side of the record. As his discography clearly shows, Desmond was always very fond of standards, and the ones he chose on this occasion seem tailor-made for his delicate, often understated style. He approaches classic ballads such as "My Funny Valentine," "Then I'll Be Tired of You," and "I Should Care" with great lyricism. Yet, as we can hear on "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Like Someone in Love," he also sounds comfortable varying the tempo and lending some diversity to the album. Jim Hall guests on guitar on four of the tracks, blending in with the orchestra as perfectly as Desmond himself and adding an extra touch of class to the proceedings. The result is a magnificent album of the kind that is agreeable to the ears and soothing to the spirit, an album that could most appropriately be described as beautiful.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Bobby Darin Swings Some Love Songs, 1961

In celebration of Valentine's Day, here's a review of one of my favorite albums by Bobby Darin—Love Swings, a concept album with the ups and downs of love as its central theme, cut for Atco in 1961. A good listen for this time of year!

A singer clearly influenced by Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin could rival Ol' Blue Eyes at hard-swinging numbers, but when it came to emotional depth, that was a totally different matter. Critics have long pointed out that one of the main differences between Sinatra and Darin is that the younger singer wasn't as successful at creating a lingering mood through song and maintaining it during the course of a whole album. That is perhaps why Darin didn't usually record concept albums, which was home territory for The Voice. Yet Love Swings, an LP Darin cut for Atlantic in 1961, is the one worthwhile exception--a collection of twelve standards outlining the different stages of a love relationship, from the effervescence of its early stages to the sadness, melancholy, and acceptance of its eventual failure.

Anyone expecting an album of hard-swinging tracks is misled by the title. While many of the songs are uptempo numbers, particularly the ones depicting the early stages of love, there are also beautifully sung ballads such as Isham Jones's "There Is No Greater Love" and Jerome Kern and Leo Robin's often-overlooked "In Love in Vain." In general the uptempo numbers ("Long Ago and Far Away," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "How About You," "The More I See You," "It Had to Be You") appear in the first part of the album, coinciding with the excitement brought about by love, while the more pensive tunes ("Something to Remember You By," "Skylark," "Spring Is Here") surface on side B, as the relationship slowly begins to take a downturn. But by this time Darin had learned Sinatra's lesson from the classic Songs for Swinging Lovers that there is no reason why a sad song shouldn't swing, and so we find here a nice uptempo reading of the Russ Columbo-associated "Just Friends," which Chet Baker had also recorded in a fast-paced version for Pacific a few years earlier. The album closes appropriately with a mid-tempo rendition of the self-mocking, hopeful "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan."

Arranger Torrie Zito

The twelve charts are arranged by Torrie Zito, and while he doesn't come anywhere near Nelson Riddle, Billy May, or Gordon Jenkins, who wrote such fine albums for the Capitol Sinatra, he does stay out of Darin's way on the swinging tracks and shows a certain knack for arranging the ballads. Darin sounds very comfortable and occasionally takes liberties with the lyrics, particularly on "How About You," where he finds a way to fit "a TV set," "fish and chips," and "rock'n'roll" into the lyrics and proclaims that Mrs. Darin's looks "kinda" give him a thrill. Exactly why this collection failed to capture the public's imagination (and spending money) when it was first released remains a mystery to me. I only wish Darin had recorded a few more discs like this one...

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jazz Flashes News: R.I.P. Singer and Pianist Buddy Greco (1926-2017)

This new year of 2017 has begun on several sour notes, with the departures of Nat Hentoff and Buddy Bregman a few days ago, to which we must add now that of vocalist and pianist Buddy Greco, one of the last of the vanishing breed of saloon singers. He passed away on January 10 at 90 years old. Unfortunately, whenever Greco is cited these days, it's mostly because of his rocky personal life: his many failed marriages, his eccentricities, his dealings with the Rat Pack, and his quick temper. But if we concentrate on his musical career, we find that Greco was a solid jazz pianist and a sophisticated singer who has left behind a very valuable body of work. Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Greco was extremely precocious, and his interest in music was encouraged by his father, who owned a record store. In the early 1940s Greco spent four years singing, playing piano, and writing arrangements for Benny Goodman. He left the orchestra and struck out on his own in 1946, around the time when solo singers had started eclipsing the big bands, and he was quite successful at it, even scoring a few hits, one of the most memorable of which was his fun uptempo version of "The Lady Is a Tramp." The success of his very entertaining live concerts and classy recordings quickly led to television and film appearances, as well as to opportunities to sing and pal around with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., in Las Vegas. However, he never attained the heights of popularity of his more famous confreres.

Despite the many ups and downs he went through in his career, Greco always concentrated on doing what he did best: singing and playing piano. In an interview with the New York Times in the 1960s, he explained: "I'd always wanted to be a jazz pianist. But it's easier to make a living as a singer. . . . By singing I can appeal to the masses." And so he did, almost right up until his very last days, appearing all over the world as a featured attraction and also as part of tribute shows to Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee. His recorded oeuvre is prodigiously vast, rich, and varied, ranging stylistically from jazz to pop to country, even to Italian songs, and his discography is full of excellent albums such as Live at Mr. Kelly's, My Buddy, and On Stage. But, in my opinion, his best project is arguably Songs for Swinging Losers, a 1960 concept album modeled on Sinatra's Songs for Swingin' Lovers that captures Greco at his peak as a saloon singer. The arrangements by Chuck Sagle are always tasteful, and Greco indulges his penchant for drama, more restrained than usual on this occasion, performing a repertoire of classic tunes that includes "Something I Dreamed Last Night," "I'm Lost," "These Foolish Things," "That Old Feeling," "You Don't Know What Love Is," and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," as well as an opener written specifically for the album by Sagle and entitled "A Swinging Loser." This recording is quintessential Greco, and the perfect introduction to the sound of a singer like no other whose work is well worth delving into. R.I.P. Buddy Greco.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Jazz Flashes News: R.I.P. Buddy Bregman, Jazz Arranger and Orchestrator

I just heard from my friend Malcolm Macfarlane, of Cheshire, England, that the great arranger Buddy Bregman has passed away in his Los Angeles home at age 86. Born in Chicago in 1930, Bregman came into prominence in the 1950s and '60s, arranging classic albums for the likes of Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Anita O'Day, to name but a few. He also wrote scores for movies such as The Pajama Game, worked on television as the musical director of The Eddie Fisher Show, and in the '60s became much in demand in England as a producer for the BBC and ITV. Songwriting royalty ran in Bregman's family, since the famed songwriter Jule Styne was his uncle, and it didn't take too long for the young Bregman to develop a fascination with jazz and and interest in writing arrangements. His first big break came in the mid-'50s in the form of an offer from none other than Norman Granz to work for his then-new Verve label, where one of his first projects was the highly successful Ella Sings the Cole Porter Songbook with Fitzgerald, who apparently was at first a little wary of Bregman's youth. He was then in his mid-twenties and was beginning to be known for powerful, brassy arrangements that sounded quite modern, something that is evident in the charts he wrote for Crosby's Bing Sings Whilst Bregman Swings, in my opinion one of the best albums in Der Bingle's vast discography.

Bing Crosby and Buddy Bregman, 1956
While at Verve, Bregman also had the opportunity to showcase his high-octane style on excellent big band albums that were released under his own name. Possibly the best of these is 1956's Swinging Kicks, which features an incredible cast of stellar musicians like Bud Shank, Jimmy Giuffre, Ben Webster, Georgie Auld, Stan Getz, Conte and Pete Candoli, Andre Previn, Frank Rosolino, Alvin Stoller, and Stan Levey, among others—truly the cream of the crop of '50s West Coast jazz. Other albums with Bregman as a leader (Dig Buddy Bregman in Hi-Fi, Swingin' Standards) show a consistently high quality, and in arranging the Count Basie-Joe Williams classic The Greatest!!! Count Basie Plays, Joe Williams Sings Standards, Bregman proves that he has a deep understanding of Basie's hard-swinging style. From the '60s on, Bregman concentrated most of his efforts on television, the medium in which his daughter, soap-opera actress Tracey Bregman, has worked for many years. In his last several years, Bregman suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and it was precisely his daughter that confirmed his passing yesterday evening. Though perhaps not as well known as fellow orchestrators Nelson Riddle or Billy May, Bregman was nevertheless one of the best jazz-based arrangers of the 20th century, and left behind an enormous legacy of recordings with some of the best singers and musicians of his day to prove it, a legacy that is well worth checking out.

Interview with Buddy Bregman

For a very interesting interview with Bregman conducted by Bruce Kimmel, click here.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Bill Charlap and Guests to Play at New York's Jazz Standard, Jan. 10-15

We've just heard that New York-based pianist Bill Charlap will be playing a one-week stint at the Jazz Standard Club, in NYC (116 East 27th Street) between January 10-15. Charlap will appear in a variety of settings, including solo and with his trio, and will be joined by several interesting guests, such as vocalist Carol Sloane (Jan. 11), pianist and wife Renee Rosnes (Jan. 12-13), and pianist-singer Freddy Cole and saxophonist Houston Person (Jan. 14). One of the best pianist on the jazz scene today, Charlap collaborated with Tony Bennett on the excellent Jerome Kern songbook The Silver Lining in 2015 (my review is available here) and has recently followed it up with a new trio effort, Notes from New York (Impulse). Accompanied by Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington (no relation!) on drums, this new album shows the perfect understanding between the three musicians, and its repertoire, which mixes well-known standards ("I'll Remember April," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "A Sleepin' Bee") with lesser-known tunes by Vernon Duke ("Not a Care in the World"), Alan and Marilyn Bergman ("Make Me Rainbows"), and Thad Jones ("Little Rascal on a Rock"), proves to be the right vehicle to showcase Charlap's elegant and exciting playing.

At the Jazz Standard, Charlap will play two sets each evening (at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.), and if you'd like any more information or wish to make reservations, you may call 212-576-2232. If you happen to be in New York between January 10-15, this is certainly a show not to be missed!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Jazz Flashes Videocast # 4: Holiday Gifts and Purchases

Dodo Greene
To paraphrase Irving Berlin's lyric, it's time to start the New Year right with a new episode of the Jazz Flashes Videocast. On this occasion, I briefly discuss three of the gifts I received this holiday season, as well as two purchases I made myself while spending a few days in North Carolina with my family. The albums I review in the video are the following:

Dodo Greene's My Hour of Need - This was one of the best discoveries I've made lately—an album by the vastly under-recorded soul jazz vocalist Dodo Greene, who unfortunately only cut a couple of dates in the early 1960s. On this 1962 Blue Note album she is backed by a stellar cast that includes the Ike Quebec Quintet.

Hank Jones & Frank Wess's Hank and Frank - The first volume of a 2003 encounter by these two jazz greats. If you listen to this one, you'll definitely be looking for its companion volume!

Miles Davis at Newport 1953-1973 - The fourth installment of Columbia-Legacy's ongoing Miles Davis bootleg series. These four CDs span twenty years of appearances by Davis in different settings at the famed Newport Jazz Festival.

Bill Evans's Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest - A recent release by Resonance Records of some late-1960s Bill Evans trio recordings made in Germany and previously unissued.

Larry Young in Paris. The ORTF Recordings - Yet another great Resonance release, featuring some 1960s sessions by the lesser-known organist and pianist made for French radio.

You may find this episode of the Jazz Flashes Videocast on YouTube (click on the top-right corner of this website to access our YouTube channel, which includes several other videos) and also here below. Happy New Year to all the readers of Jazz Flashes!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas Jazz: Kenny Burrell; Mattias Nilsson & Ray Aichinger

With the holiday season already upon us, it's time to review a couple of very recommendable Christmas jazz albums, both a classic and a newer issue. The former is Kenny Burrell's guitar-and-orchestra affair from 1966, entitled Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas, and released by the small Cadet label. Burrell definitely delivers on the title's promise—this is, indeed, a very soulful album from start to finish, with Burrell tackling both tunes one would expect ("White Christmas," "Silent Night") and others that are not as common ("Mary's Little Boy Chile," "Go Where I Send Thee"). Whether he's playing a wistful ballad or an uptempo number, Burrell's approach is always elegant and engaging, and even though he's accompanied by an orchestra and occasional strings, the focus is still on the guitar, both acoustic and electric. The intelligent arrangements by Richard Evans never get in the way and add to the soulfulness of the whole, even if the producers do tend to fade out some of the tracks. There isn't a single blemish on the album, from the sprightly version of "The Little Drummer Boy" that opens it to the bluesy reading of "Merry Christmas Baby" that serves as the closer. In between, there are many standouts, such as "My Favorite Things," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "The Christmas Song," which will help add some soul to your holidays!

The more recent release is Silent Nights, a seven-song album by the duo of Swedish pianist Mattias Nilsson and Austrian saxophonist Ray Aichinger. It was originally issued on CD in 2015, and now it's being made available again as a digital download by the Stockholm-based Fog Arts label. It's a very interesting collection because it couples two standards with a few carols from the European tradition that show how rewarding the relationship between the folk music of the Old World and jazz can be. The standards are a very lyrical reading of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" that echoes the style of Lester Young and Ben Webster, and an unlikely recasting of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" as a Yuletide song. One of the carols is "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht," which is none other than "Silent Night," and the other three ("Karl-Bertil Jonssons Julafton," "Macht Hoch Die Tür," and "Under Rönn och Syren") are pensive tunes that lend themselves perfectly to Nilsson and Aichinger's intimate approach. As a bonus, this digital reissue includes an original composition by the duo, "Blue December," which will also be featured in their forthcoming new holiday album, Peaceful in Dreams (European Jazz Records), which is actually slated to be released today.