Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Miles Davis legacy, still vibrant after all these years

Trumpeter, bandleader and jazz innovator Miles Davis would have turned 90 today (May 26), had he not passed away nearly 25 years ago. That quarter-century absence from the jazz scene arrives on September 28, 2016.

His music continues to resonate for lovers of his various styles of performance: bop, cool bop, modal jazz, hard bop, electronic fusion, and instrumental pop music. He was one of the pivotal figures in modern jazz. Miles was a charming, frustrating enigma – blessed with one of the sweetest tones ever heard on trumpet and dogged by a "Prince of Darkness" persona that was as much a buffer guarding his private space as it was a mystique.

On this Milestone day, here’s an opportunity to check out or revisit the 4,000-word profile I prepared just before his 60th birthday. The four-hour interview experience was quite illuminating about the man and his music. I’m also sharing a few images from that April 7, 1986 afternoon in Manhattan.


Happy 90th, Miles. wherever your spirit resides today. It certainly resides in countless musical hearts, given the relentless interest in the music.

 Photos © Ken Franckling 1986, all rights reserved.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

CDs of Note – Short Takes

Tis the season for jazz tribute recordings. Taking a look at CD projects honoring the musical legacies of Jackie McLean, Marian McPartland, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, Grover Washington Jr. and Attila Zoller.... 

Champian Fulton, After Dark (Gut String)
Oklahoma-born, New York-based pianist and singer Champian Fulton tips a mighty hat on this CD to her biggest jazz vocal hero, the late Dinah Washington. Ten of the tunes on After Dark are from the Washington songbook. Fulton’s sweet vocals and bluesy piano style are backed here by bassist David Williams and drummer Lewis Nash, with her father, trumpeter Stephen Fulton, joining on four tracks. Gems include “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “A Bad Case of the Blues,” “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and Fulton’s original “Midnight Stroll,” a solo piano piece deeply influenced by fellow Oklahoman Jay McShann. Fulton honors Washington’s legacy here in a way that also spotlights her own formidable skills.

Jacknife, The Music of Jackie McLean (Primary)
San Francisco Bay area saxophonist Steven Lucerne has been using his quintet Jacknife to dig deep into alto sax player Jackie McLean’s edgy post-bop recordings. The material on this CD was drawn from four seminal 1960s Blue Note albums: Jacknife, It’s Time, Let Freedom Ring and New Soil. Lugerner’s band includes pianist Richard Sears, bassist Garret Lang, drummer Michael Mitchell and trumpeter JJ Kirkpatrick. Favorites: their takes on McLean’s classic blues “Das Dat,” Charles Tolliver’s “On the Nile,” McLean’s teasing, twisting “Melody for Melonae” and his blues “Hip Strut.”

Jason Miles, To Grover With Love / Live in Japan (Whaling City Sound)
Perhaps more than any other musician of his day, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. created an instrumental crossover sound blending straight-ahead jazz with the energy and soul of R&B. He had a sound all his own, and keyboardist Jason Miles pulled together a band to honor that legacy in live performance. This session, recorded at the Blue Note jazz club in Tokyo in June 2010, dug into material from a 1997 Washington performance at New York’s Paramount Theater. 

Miles’ funky septet featured hard-driving tenor players Andy Snitzer and Eric Darius (sometimes featured separately, sometimes going head to head), bassist Gerald Veasley and percussionist Ralph McDonald (both Grover band alumni), guitarist Nick Moroch and drummer Buddy Williams. Ryan Shaw added guest vocals on “Just the Two of Us.” Favorite tracks: their takes on several classic Grover hits:  “Winelight,” “Lorans Dance,” Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and MacDonald’s “Mr. Magic.” Thanks to projects like this, Grover’s musical spirit remains alive and well. 

Roberta Piket, One for Marian: Celebrating Marian McPartland (Thirteenth Note)

Marian McPartland was best known as a jazz pianist and longtime broadcaster, hosting the classic public radio program Piano Jazz for more than 30 years. Roberta Piket wants us to pay more attention to McPartland’s legacy as a composer. Her newest CD, One for Marian, does that as Piket and her band perform McPartland material plus two original tribute tunes, the title track “One for Marian” and the elegiac “Saying Goodbye.” McPartland covers on this project include “Threnody” (written as a musical portrait of Mary Lou Williams), “Ambience,” “In the Days of Our Love” (for which Peggy Lee wrote lyrics) and “Kaleidoscope,” which became the Piano Jazz theme song. The band includes saxophonists Virginia Mayhew and Steve Wilson, trumpeter Bill Mobley, bassist Harvie S. and drummer Billy Mintz. Singer Karrin Allyson joins Piket for a duet version of “Twilight World,” a McPartland tune for which Johnny Mercer penned lyrics.  
(This is a June 10 release.)

Various Artists, Oscar, With Love (Two Lions)
This three-CD set is a stunning salute to the late pianist Oscar Peterson. Sixteen top jazz pianists brought their own interpretations to a wide range of Peterson compositions – recording all of them on his Bosendorfer Imperial piano in his home studio near Toronto. The collection includes 19 of Peterson’s best-known pieces, 10 compositions that were never recorded previously, and seven compositions that the featured pianists wrote in tribute to Peterson (such as Chick Corea’s “One for Oscar”). The participating pianists included Corea, Lance Anderson, Monty Alexander, Kenny Barron, Robi Botos, Bill Charlap, Gerald Clayton, Peterson protégé Benny Green, Hiromi, Oliver Jones, Justin Kauflin, Ramsey Lewis, Michel Legrand, Audrey Morris, Makoto Ozone and Renee Rosnes.

The previously unrecorded pieces included Legrand’s performance of “Dream of Me,” Oliver Jones’ take on “Celine’s Waltz,” which Oscar wrote for his daughter, and Ramsey Lewis’s exploration of the ballad “If I Love Again.” Gerald Clayton honored Peterson with his cover of Oscar’s civil rights anthem “Hymn to Freedom.” Charlap and Rosnes performed separately and also teamed on a four-hand version of “Sushi.” Favorites included Barron’s take on “Ballad for Benny Carter,” Rosnes’ version of Peterson’s “Love Ballade,” Botos’ version of Peterson’s majestic “Wheatland,” Hiromi’s zippy take on the playful “Oscar’s New Camera” and bassist Dave Young’s solo elegy, “Goodbye Old Friend.” What an ambitious project, recorded over 10 months and so beautifully delivered by Oscar’s widow, Kelly Peterson. There is much, much, much to savor. 

Various Artists, Message to Attila: The Music of Attila Zoller (Enja)
The late Attila Zoller was an important but somewhat obscure link between the American and European jazz scenes who also bridged the gap between swing jazz and the avant-garde. The guitarist, composer and educator began his career in Budapest and ended it at his Vermont Jazz Center. Guitarists and a few non-guitarists honor Zoller’s legacy by performing his compositions on this project, and six also recorded messages of what he meant to them. 

Participants included guitarists John Abercrombie, David Becker, Peter Bernstein, Gene Bertoncini, Helmut Kagerer, Pat Metheny (in a 1998 track with the late Jim Hall), Mike Stern, bassist Ron Carter, vibes player Wolfgang Lakerschmid, and pianist Eugene Uman. Favorites: the Hall-Metheny take on “The Birds and the Bees,” Bertoncini’s duo with Ron Carter on “When It’s Time,” Abercrombie’s trio take on “Waltz for Joy,” Kagerer’s solo version of “Ulla’s Memories” and a Bernstein/Becker cover of “Samba Caribia.”

Monday, May 2, 2016

Opening a month-long tribute to a jazz legend

Much attention will be paid throughout May to the musical legacy of trumpeter Miles Davis, who would have turned 90 this May 26. His musical legacy remains so strong today that it sometimes is hard to fathom that he left us a quarter-century ago - on September 28, 1991.

James Suggs
Trumpeter James Suggs assembled a fine quintet to honor Davis's imprint on mainstream jazz and shared music from the horn legend at a Sunday, May 1 concert co-sponsored by the Tampa (FL) Jazz Club, WUSF's "All Night Jazz" program and Hillsborough Community College's Visual and Performing Arts Series.
Phil Magallanes

The band included tenor saxophonist Kenny Anderson and pianist Phil Magallanes, both alumni of Arturo Sandoval's band, bassist Billy Pillucere and drummer Ric Craig. This is a band that had never worked together before - but you never would have known it from the players' synergy. 

 Anderson moved to the Tampa Bay area a couple of weeks ago from Nashville, and Craig returned to the region recently to teach at the University of South Florida after two decades in Los Angeles. Suggs has been in Florida for two years, after spending eight years playing jazz trumpet in Argentina.
Kenny Anderson

Together, at HCC's Mainstage Theater on the Ybor City campus, they channeled the Miles Davis spirit to put their own imprint on classic music Davis wrote or recorded between the late 1940s to the late1960s, before he veered into his fusion and pop phases. 

The program touched on bebop (John Lewis's "Milestones," the Miles arrangement of Monk's "Round Midnight," If I Were a Bell"), cool jazz/modal ("So What," "Blue in Green," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Some Day My Prince Will Come" and "My Funny Valentine") and his early experimental phase with his second great quintet featuring Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock ( Shorter's "Nefertiti and E.S.P."). 
Billy Pillucere

Ric Craig
"Miles' real talent was in picking his bands. He had a different lineup on virtually every record," said Suggs, who has been studying Davis's music since his early teens

 WUSF in Tampa, 89.7 FM, will continue the Davis celebration with a Miles-a-Palooza programming series that will run throughout May on "All Night Jazz." They've got a lot of fertile ground to cover.

Full disclosure: in addition to covering the concert, I was invited to talk a bit about Miles and sign copies of my book, Jazz in the Key of Light.
Magallanes, Suggs, Anderson, Pillucere, Craig

Thursday, April 21, 2016

What’s on your jazz list?

By the very nature of the process of making the music, any tune can become a jazz tune. Some well-known standards, which I need not mention to further popularize them, are done so often that they are beyond tiresome. But jazz compositions stick with you for other reasons. The melody may be striking, or perhaps you’ve witnessed a performance that left you with goosebumps. The reasons will vary from listener to listener.

Just for fun, I started thinking the other night about my most favorite jazz tunes.

Here are the top 12 – right now. The first five are ranked by personal preference. The others are close behind but not listed in any particular order.

Ahmad Jamal at Newport, 2010
1 - “Poinciana” - Ahmad Jamal has been playing this 1930s tune, popularized in the 1952 film “Dreamboat,” since the mid-1950s. It became his become his signature tune thanks to a two-year ride on the top 10 charts after his 1958 recorded version was released in 1963 on his Live at the Pershing album. I’ve heard him perform it live many times – and never the same way twice. He always finds new things to explore and share.

2 - “Con Alma” - Dizzy Gillespie is better known for his standards “Manteca” and “Night in Tunisia,” among others. This ballad, with a Spanish name that translates as “with soul” has always been a favorite. It is a beauty - and is so different than the music we normally associate with Dizzy.

3 - “Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)” - This Joaquin Rodrigo composition is the opening segment - dare I say highlight? – of the landmark Miles Davis and Gil Evans Sketches of Spain project. It is one of my favorite Davis albums. Little-known fact: When the album was first released in 1960, the packaging did not include the band personnel. One of them was drummer Elvin Jones - who played the mood-setting castinets.

4 - “Peace” - This Horace Silver ballad’s finest rendition, to my ears, is by pianist Tommy Flanagan on his 1978 Something Borrowed, Something Blue album. The esteemed jazz broadcaster Eric Jackson used this version as his “Eric in the Evening” theme song for many years on WGBH-FM in Boston.

5 - “Blue in Green” - This Bill Evans composition was one of only two ballads on Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue album. Evans wrote the tune, but Davis got the compositional credit - and royalty checks. Its modal melody sticks with you.

-  To Wisdom, the Prize” - Bassist Dominic Mancini hipped me to this pensive Larry Willis tune. He’d first heard it on a Joey Calderazzo trio album The Traveler (Blue Note, 1993). It debuted 10 years earlier on trumpeter Nat Adderley’s On the Move album when Willis was the band’s pianist. That session was recorded in October 1982 at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner jazz club.

-  Little Sunflower” - This Freddie Hubbard classic is quite the contrast to his more uptempo material.

-  Jeannine” - Duke Pearson wrote it around 1960. Many jazz bands have covered it and continue to do so today. It’s boppish energy make it a great springboard for improvisers.

-  Afro-Blue” - Mongo Santamaria composed this Latin jazz gem. John Coltrane covered it, so did McCoy Tyner, whose big band arrangement is riveting.

-  The Sidewinder” - Lee Morgan’s 1964 album title track stands out as a genre-defining tune for the 1960s soul jazz scene, much like another personal favorite, Nat Adderley’s “Work Song.” Both have become jazz standards.

-  Joy Spring” - Trumpeter Clifford Brown composed it as a tribute to his wife. It was recorded in1954 on the EmArcy recording Clifford Brown& Max Roach – two years before Brown died in a car crash at age 25. Thanks to music like this, his jazz legacy endures 60 years later.

- “Moanin’” - This Bobby Timmons tune was first recorded by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958. It has a catchy call-and-response melodic segment that indeed caught on – and helped turn it into a jazz instrumental standard. Singer Jon Hendricks added lyrics.

So, what’s on your list?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CDs of Note - Short Takes

Taking a look at new CD releases by Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton, Ari Erev, Lyle Mays and Sonny Rollins…

Scott Hamilton/Harry Allen, Live! (GAC)
Harry Allen and Scott Hamilton earn their bread and butter – and have built solid reputations – over many decades as two of the finest swing tenor saxophonists around. But both are quite capable of friskier playing. This CD, recorded live in February 2014 at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz CA, is a gem of a tenor battle. They are supported by pianist Rossano Sportiello, bassist Paul Keller and drummer Leon Joyce Jr. The highlight is the closer, Hamilton and Allen’s 15-minute version of Gene Ammons’ and Sonny Stitt’s hard-driving “Blues up and Down.” How appropriate to tip their hat to the men who arguably set the bar for this kind of two-tenor performance. This is one to savor.

Ari Erev, Flow (Acum)
Pianist and composer Ari Erev pulled together some of his favorite Israeli jazz musicians for this beautiful project. He’s a melodic songwriter who loves infusing modern jazz harmonies with Latin rhythms. Ten of the dozen tracks are Erev originals. Highlights: “Jumping in the Water,” “Playful Moments,” “July, Again,” “Treasures in Havana” (one of five features for soprano saxophonist Yuval Cohen), and the band’s take on Fred Hersch’s stunning “Endless Stars.” The band also includes bassist Eli Magen, drummer Ron Almog and percussionist Gilad Dobrecky.

Lyle Mays Quartet, The Ludwigsburg Concert (SWR Jazzhaus)
We've heard little from or about pianist/keyboardist Lyle Mays since guitarist Pat Metheny suspended his longstanding Pat Metheny Group six years ago to pursue a variety of other projects. He had been Metheny’s musical alter ego since 1977. That history, and Mays’ departure from the radar screen, makes this project so special. This features Mays’ acoustic quartet live in concert at the Scala jazz club in Ludwigsburg, Germany in November 1993. The band that fine night included saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Mark Walker.

The two-CD set includes eight Mays originals plus “Au Lait” a tune co-written with Metheny. Highlights: The opener, “Fictionary,” a 24-minute gem that begins with an extended piano solo before the band adds more exuberance, the edgy “Either Ornette,” the pensive ”Lincoln Reviews His Notes,” the spirited “August” and “Are We There Yet?” The latter tune features the rhythmic undercurrent reminiscent of so many great tunes from the PMG repertoire. It’s a rare thing to hear Mays playing acoustic piano. That makes this set even more special.

Sonny Rollins, Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4 (Doxy/OKeh)
Tenor sax titan Sonny Rollins has always preferred the energy and musical tightrope afforded by a live performance to the sterile confines of a recording studio. That viewpoint has much to do with the success of his series of Road Shows recordings. The newest one, Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4, documents Rollins in a wide array of band configurations and in an extended time span – one track from 1979 at Finland’s Pori Jazz Festival to a pair from a 2012 European tour. One track, recorded four years ago in Prague, is a two-minute duet by Rollins and guitarist Saul Rubin on “Mixed Emotions.” It was the only time Rollins has performed the ballad. Most Rollins tunes feature him riding strong over his band’s rhythmic cushion. How unusual to hear an intimate musical dialogue - on what's likely the briefest track he’s ever recorded.

The gems here are from his September 15, 2001 concert at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, just four days after terrorists destroyed New York’s World Trade Towers. Rollins’ Grammy-winning Milestone album Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, documented most of the emotional performance. The pieces here, which didn’t fit on his Without a Song CD, include “You’re Mine You,” which Rollins had never recorded previously, and the incredible closer: a 23-minute medley that closed concert. “Sweet Leilani” led into a five-minute unaccompanied solo, touching on many facets of Rollins' extensive songbook, that was a bridge to the band’s 11-minute take on “Don’t Stop the Carnival.” What a masterpiece.