Sunday, April 12, 2009

For kids of all ages - and the kid inside each of us

Three very different recordings have come across my listening post that have kids at heart. I’m referring to projects that can help interest more youngsters in jazz, or help bring out the kid side of those who sometimes forget those more innocent, imaginative days.

Phil Woods, The Children's Suite (Jazzed Media)
In 1967, alto saxophonist Phil Woods completed work on “The Children’s Suite,” which was carefully crafted when he discovered that the words in his kids’ A.A. Milne books would make splendid songs. So he wrote original music for more than a dozen of poems from “Now We Are Six” featuring Christopher Robin and his imaginary friend Winnie the Pooh.

It took until 2007 to complete Woods’ magical journey. The 40-year gap ended when he finished navigating an extended legal minefield to obtain the necessary permissions and conditions from the Milne estate and the Disney Company, which owns the rights to all of Milne’s literature.

The ambitious project’s ensemble features the vocals of Bob Dorough and Vicki Doney, Woods’ distinctive alto sax, and the narration of English actor Peter Dennis, a jazz fan who is the only person licensed to perform Milne’s works on stage. Dennis also deserves credit for helping Woods maneuver through the legal intricacies. The project was recorded to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts, of which Woods was a co-founder.

Ezra Weiss, Alice in Wonderland (Northwest Children’s Theater and School)
Pianist Weiss’s intent was helping children discover jazz when he adapted “Alice on Wonderland” for a musical production by Portland, Oregon’s Northwest Children’s Theater and School, where he teaches. In the original production at NCTS, the jazz band was at center stage and all of the action took place around the musicians. Weiss took the opportunity to write and arrange his tunes to explicitly offer stylistic references to a substantial list of jazz greats including Ellington and Strayhorn, Miles, Trane, Bird, Mingus, Monk, Shirley Horn and the Latin size of Dizzy, as well as blues figures Bessie Smith and B.B. King.

For example, this blend of classic literature and jazz history quotes a bit of “A Train” on an Ellington-influenced version of “A Long and Sad Tail,” and the Caterpillar character on “Who Are You?” plays muted trumpet rather than smokes a hookah - and has a Miles-like whispery growl in his voice. The excellent adult voices include Pacific Northwest-based jazz singers Marilyn Keller and Shirley Nanette and 19-year-old Athena Patterson, who excels at the blues.

Holly Yarbrough, Mister Rogers Swings! (
This project, subtitled Holly Yarbrough sings the Fred Rogers Songbook, puts an adult twist on 16 tunes that entertainer Fred Rogers wrote for and sang on the 34-year run of his children’s TV show, “Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.” Dressed up in a jazz setting, complete with robust horns and strings - and Yarbrough’s pleasant vocals, the lyrics take on just as much a message for adults as they ever held for kids. “You’ve Got to Do It” even carries a decidedly adult double-entendre feel. This also was one of the final studio sessions by late saxophonist Boots Randolph. Nashville-based Yarbrough is the daughter of folksinger Glenn Yarbrough.

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