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.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Two-Sentence Jazz Reviews, May-June 2017—Part II

Here's the second installment of the brief two-sentence reviews of jazz records that I heard during my recent European trip and that I originally published in my Facebook page.

The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn, Vol. 2 (Atlantic, 1959)

Recorded live in Lenox, MA, in the summer of 1958, this date showcases the usual elegance of the forward-thinking Modern Jazz Quartet along with tenorist Sonny Rollins on two tracks (on Vol. 1, recorded two years earlier at the same place, it's Jimmy Giuffre that guests). The carefully chosen set list works perfectly, mixing standards with tunes by John Lewis, Milt Jackson, and Charlie Parker, and the two tracks with Rollins ("Bags' Groove" and "Night in Tunisia") are the highlights of an album that is superb all around.



Oscar Peterson Trio + One (Mercury, 1964 / Verve, 2007)

Cut for Mercury in 1964, this is one of Oscar Peterson's most relaxed, bluesiest dates of the 1960s, featuring a special guest in trumpeter Clark Terry, who plays both flugelhorn and trumpet. Peterson's piano playing is characteristically dazzling, as usual, and the comfortable interplay between his trio (Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums) and Terry is a joy to hear, making this an essential entry in Peterson's vast, rich discography.

Jan Lundgren Trio—Svenska Landskap (Sittel, 2003 / Fog Arts, 2017)

This 2003 gem now available for digital download and streaming finds Jan Lundgren and his trio (Mattias Svensson on bass and Morten Lund on drums) on a musical journey around Sweden via jazz versions of traditional tunes and a couple of very appropriate Lundgren originals. The playing is swift and fresh on the uptempo tracks and lyrical and introspective on the ballads, and the album as a whole won't disappoint anyone who takes a chance on it. [You may read a more detailed Jazz Flashes review about this album here.]

Freddie Hubbard—Born to Be Blue (Pablo, 1982)

This is a lovely, very recommendable late-career album by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard in a percussion-laden sextet that also features the great Harold Land on tenor sax and flute. It features some very engaging uptempo numbers (like "Joy Spring," for instance) and some typically sensitive, lyrical ballad playing such as the beautiful title track.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Two-Sentence Jazz Reviews, May-June 2017—Part I

Due to a recent trip to Europe, I haven't had the chance to publish anything in Jazz Flashes, but I did write some very brief reviews of jazz albums I heard and/or purchased while overseas on my Facebook page. Now that I am back, I have compiled these two-sentence reviews on this post. I hope you find something to your liking among these outstanding records—and stay tuned for the forthcoming second part!

Buddy Tate and His Buddies (Chiaroscuro, 1994)

Saxophonist Buddy Tate's buddies—trumpeter Roy Eldridge, saxist Illinois Jacquet, pianist Mary Lou Williams, guitarist Steve Jordan, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Gus Johnson—are mostly jazz royalty, musicians who feel at ease in each other's company and enjoy playing together. This powerful, blues-drenched 1973 New York City date is truly a masterclass in first-rate small-group swing and blues, five selections that give all participants plenty of room to shine and surprise the listener with their inventiveness and exciting knack for improvisation.





Emil Viklicky—Live at the Box (Petr Bielicky, 2014 / Fog Arts, 2017)

Always the experimentalist, Czech jazz pianist Emil Viklicky feels at home distilling a mixture of jazz, classical, and Moravian folk music, as he does in Live at the Box, recently reissued for digital download and streaming by the Stockholm based Fog Arts label. This 2011 live date finds Viklicky in a trio setting, with Frantisek Uhlir on bass and Josef Vejvoda on drums, running through a varied selection of his highly personal compositions, the kind of eclectic jazz that surprises and grows on the listener with each play, with the highlight being bassist Uhlir's "Father's Blues."


Gerry Mulligan & Scott Hamilton—Soft Lights and Sweet Music (Concord, 1986)

Though perhaps not as well known as it deserves to be, this is a memorable tenor-baritone saxophone meeting between Scott Hamilton and Gerry Mulligan, cut in the mid-1980s for Concord in a quintet setting with Mike Renzi on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. It's a mostly uptempo affair with a fair share of Mulligan originals, and the mutual understanding between both saxophonists makes for some extremely satisfying listening.


Howard McGhee—Maggie's Back in Town (Contemporary, 1961)

After quite a spell away from the studios due to drug-related problems, trumpeter Howard McGhee came back on the jazz scene with this amazing album that showcases his bop-inflected playing in the company of fantastic musicians like pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr., bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and drummer Shelly Manne. The result is one of the best bop records of the early 1960s, an inventive, exciting run through a few standards, an original composition by McGhee, and two Teddy Edwards tunes, all of which makes it clear that Maggie (as McGhee was known to his friends) was definitely back!



Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Jazz Flashes Podcast: A Conversation with Jazz Discographer & Historian Noal Cohen

Rochester-born jazz discographer, historian, and musician Noal Cohen first heard the sounds of jazz at a very early age and was instantly hooked. And even though there were other interests in his life, he has devoted a big part of his time to listening to, playing, and studying this music, particularly the bop and hard bop of the 1950s and '60s. Now that he's retired and lives in Montclair, NJ, he has undertaken several important projects. One of them is his website, Noal Cohen's Jazz History Website, which features thorough, painstakingly researched discographies of jazz greats such as Gigi Gryce, Johnny Hartman, Elmo Hope, Lucky Thompson, Frank Strozier, Teddy Charles, and Herb Geller, among others. The site is also a treasure trove of LP covers from his extensive jazz record collection and information about the 1950s Rochester, NY, jazz scene, which was extremely active. His other project is a book he has co-authored with his friend Michael FitzgeraldRat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce, the definitive Gryce biography, which has already reached its second edition.


I recently had the chance to chat with Noal about his life, his invaluable work as a jazz historian and discographer, and his personal views on jazz and its history, when he guested on the sixth episode of the Jazz Flashes PodcastDuring our lengthy conversation, which ended up lasting for about two hours, Noal and I discussed his excellent Gigi Gryce biography (which he had already written about a few months ago in The Vintage Bandstand, here), his laborious discographical research on some lesser-known jazz greats from the '50s and '60s, his own work as a jazz drummer, and the many reasons why the Eisenhower years can be considered a golden era of high-quality jazz, among several other topics. I'd like to thank Noal for guesting on the podcast and for his time; our conversation was quite a thrill for me, and if you are interested in listening to it, you may access it in its entirety here:



Friday, May 12, 2017

New (Re)Issues: Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mercer & Bobby Darin, Jan Lundgren

This year marks the centennial of Ella Fitzgerald's birthday, so it's the perfect time to celebrate her vast musical legacy and an amazing career that spanned several decades. While in this celebratory mood, Verve just released a 4-CD set entitled 100 Songs for a Centennial, which offers a good cross-section of recordings from two important periods of her career—her associations with Decca and Verve. The sides Fitzgerald cut for Decca in the 1940s and '50s, after the years she spent with Chick Webb in the '30s, cemented her reputation as a top-notch jazz and pop singer and gave her the chance to record with other great names like Louis Jordan or the Ink Spots. It was also while at Decca that she made her beautiful intimate recordings with pianist Ellis Larkins that can be found on the Pure Ella CD. Whereas at Decca she concentrated on singles, after signing with Norman Granz's Verve Records in the mid-'50s, Fitzgerald switched her primary interest to albums, and it was then that she began her acclaimed series of songbooks devoted to some of the greatest American composers, such as Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, and co. During this very successful period, she also had plenty of time to record thematic albums with top arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Frank DeVol, as well as cutting some classic live LPs. While 100 Songs for a Centennial doesn't span her whole career, it's still interesting because it features some of Fitzgerald's most enduring recordings, all collected in one place.





In 1960, a seemingly unlikely musical collaboration took place as rocker-turned-swinger Bobby Darin and ace singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer entered the Atlantic studios to make an album together, with arranger Billy May at the helm. The result, released as Two of a Kind, was indeed unique and showcased the mutual understanding between both artists, who were clearly having lots of fun going through some Mercer classics and a few lesser-known songs that hark back to the 1920s. I already wrote about this LP several years ago, here, but now the Omnivore label has reissued the original album along with a few unreleased outtakes that provide a glimpse into these incredibly charming, fun sessions, full of swing and camaraderie. The sound is fantastic, and this reissue is recommendable even for those who may already have the album on CD without the bonus tracks.





The Stockholm-based label Fog Arts continues with the digital reissue of albums by the pianist Jan Lundgren (and others) that have been out of print for a while. On May 5 they made available for download and for streaming on all major services a recording that Lundgren and his trio (Mattias Svensson on bass and Morten Lund on drums) cut for Sittel back in 2003. Originally released both as Svenska Landskap and Landscapes, it's yet another masterful melding of jazz and Scandinavian folk music in the mold of the highly successful Swedish Standards. The concept here is clear—a collection of mostly traditional tunes culled from the different geographic areas of Sweden and transformed by the trio's personal jazzy sensibility and Lundgren's flair for melodies that are sometimes swift and lilting and sometimes pensive and introspective. The arrangements are at once respectful with tradition, imaginative, and sensitive, and besides a couple of Lundgren originals ("Småland" and "Blekinge") that blend in perfectly with the overall mood of the album, there's also one selection by the iconic 18th-century Swedish poet and composer Carl Michael Bellman and another by the highly respected Scandinavian artist Evert Taube. Anyone looking for truly beautiful jazz that incorporates both tradition and modernity need look no further. More information about Svenska Landskap here, and of course, further interesting Fog Arts digital reissues are slated to appear in the near future, including more recordings by Lundgren, as well as a collaboration between Czech pianist Emil Viklicky and New York trumpeter Marcus Printup.