Recent listening, current

Monday, December 30, 2013

163-165. Chick Webb / Rhythm Man (HEP CD 1023) Stompin' at the Savoy (CD AJA 5416) & Stompin' at the Savoy (FABCD 119)

I've recently come across three similar compilations of the swing drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, who was affectionately known to his friends and admirers as "Little Man." Webb was a prominent leader on the '30s swing circuit, perhaps best known for introducing the world to Ella Fitzgerald who led the band following his death. Although short lived, Webb's orchestra was respectable and performed on par with the Ellington, Basie, Lunceford, Redman, and Henderson bands. Tragically, Webb died in 1939 so we don't know what kind of magical music he would have continued to make as the swing craze really took off.

All three records feature common selections in the playlists, all are released as public domain music by UK labels, but that's about where the similarities stop. If I could pick only one, I'd go with Rhythm Man. It has superior audio (transfers by John R.T. Davies), detailed liner notes including arranger credits and order of soloists, and two versions each of "Blue Minor" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." If I could pick two of the three, then the ASV disc is the next clear winner. It has bright audio with excellent definition up top, but somewhat stingy in the low end. Like the Stompin' disc by Fab, it includes some later material not heard on the Hep release (hear "A-Tisket, A-Tasket"). Fab's Stompin' suffers from dismal and murky audio that sounds like gratuitous noise reduction, as well as some artificial reverb and overly loud levels. For all of its clarity and definition, the ASV's Stompin' sounds like it could be running a bit fast. Given, the difference in speed is only really apparent by listening to the two discs in contrast. Presently supplies are limited and ASV/Living Era imprint is defunct so better get on the stick if you'd like to own one today.

The following is a summary breakdown of each album, and should it interest you, I prepared a .PDF to download here which graphically compares the playlists of each album.

Rhythm Man  
Hep Records  
HEP CD 1023
Has a lot of earlier material, not included on either of the others. Excellent audio definition, transfers done by John R.T. Davies. Best liner notes and discographical information. Lacks later material, and there are no vocals by Fitzgerald. Two versions each of "Blue Minor" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."

Stompin' at the Savoy
ASV/Living Era (imprint)
CD AJA 5416
Contains everything on FABCD 119 except five songs. Lacks earlier material found on HEP CD 1023. Good definition and clarity, however, sounds like maybe running fast. Lower end tends to lack body. Later recording of "Sunny Side" and "Blue Minor." Fitzgerald on "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." Out of print and limited availability. Pretty good liner notes.

Stompin' at the Savoy 
Similar playlist as CD AJA 5416. Muddy sound lacks definition and high range possibly due to noise reduction. Is that artificial "concert hall" reverb that I hear? Boo! Speeds seem inconsistent - some too fast, others too slow. Levels are hotter than ASV, and a little less than Hep. Earlier recording of "Blue Minor." Limited liner notes and discographical information.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

162. Steely Dan / Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)

The followup to Can't Buy a Thrill is like the great early Steely Dan album that no one talks about. It's understandable for a band with things like Aja or Pretzel Logic lurking in the back catalog. Much like Scam, the band's second LP seems destined live in the shadow of its discographical neighbors. But the songcraft is wise and clever, a subtly sophisticated mix of pop, blues, rock, soul and jazz. And like Royal Scam and Katy Lied, it helps set up the stylistic direction that reached its pinnacle with Aja. I find it amazing that this is only their second record. It's an instructional antithesis to the sophomore slump. Appreciating its heights and evenness compared to the debut does much to illustrate the talents of the creators. To say the least, Becker and Fagen are really hitting their stride by this time. The pieces for each future masterwork are in place: First thing to gel is Fagen doing all the lead vocals, killing the herky-jerky transitions heard on Thrill. Denny Dias and Jeff Baxter split the guitar duties, Baxter contributing pedal steel and six string. But there are notable session players, too, like Ray Brown on "Razor Boy," Rick Derringer on "Showbiz Kids," Ernie Watts on "My Old School," and Victor Feldman playing several instruments through both sides. The lyrics come into their own, filled with wry references, quotable one-liners, and unforgettable character studies that are simultaneously explicit and oblique. Some of the music is visionary, too. "Pearl of the Quarter" has been described as "country," but to my ear it is something closer to the further amalgamation of American musical idioms, presaging that which in later decades we would come to call Americana. I love all the SD albums and go through phases where one will sit on my stereo for longer than the others. Right now, Ecstasy is "the one." So excuse me as I put on my headphones and turn on to the curt, sardonic strains of "Bodhisattva" once again....

Monday, December 23, 2013

161. Al Grey & Friends / Christmas Stockin' Stuffer (1990)

If you're not averse to "Christmas jazz" -- practically it's own genre nowadays, a diverse lot encompassing everything from Coltrane to Mindi Abair -- then be sure to track down a copy of Christmas Stockin' Stuffer. The mood is relaxed and bluesy, an enjoyable set replete with vocals, organ, guitar, and of course, Grey's talking trombone. I like its lonesome touch on "Winter Wonderland" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," interspersed with Joe (son of Al) Cohn's funky riffing on the guitar. There are some vocal spots like the opening "Christmas Stockin' Stuffer" (guest vocal by Jon Hendricks), which is a treat. "White Christmas" is arranged with strings adding a warm, homey glow to the playlist. The short but sweet New Orleans inspired "Auld Lang Syne" plays you straight through New Years' Eve, if you can't give up the holiday spirit until January. Not exactly what I would describe as an obscure album, but not exactly easy to find, either, Grey's holiday outing is a must-have for my season.

Friday, December 20, 2013

160. Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges / Side By Side (1959)

I put this album in the "essential" pile. From the first punchy, rather Dukelike chords in "Stompy Jones," we're off to the races with two sessions comprised of Ellington and Basie alumni. I love listening to Sweets Edison in the context of a small group. His lines in "Stompy" are clean, concise, and eloquent, ringing out above the swinging bass, Jo Jones' crashing cymbals and Duke's rhythmical encouragement. Those two guys -- Duke Ellington and Jo Jones -- make quite the pair midway through the tune when the front line lays out and lets them have a round of aggressive chords and crashing percussion. Hodges comes back just in time for a joyous, New Orleans style melee at the end. The lineup with Ellington and Sweets only does three of the album's nine tracks ("Stompy," "Squeeze Me" and "Going Up"). The second session is a septet recorded six months earlier with Billy Strayhorn, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Wendell Marshall, and Lawrence Brown. The character is similar but the different chemistry is easy to hear. Of course the soloists change, Eldridge's style is flashier than Sweets', but there's also a different sentimental quality and certain reserve presiding over cuts like "Let's Fall in Love" that is absent from the music with Ellington. Maybe it's Webster. Or maybe it's Strayhorn? Who knows. Regardless of which band you prefer, this disc is wonderful.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

159. Buck Hill Quartet / This is Buck Hill (1978)

This is Buck Hill is Hill's recording debut on SteepleChase. From Washington D.C., Hill worked for the post office by day and was a hard driving driving tenor sax leader by night. So by the time we meet him in 1978, he is 51 years old and already possesses a fully developed tone and unique stylistic approach to modal material. Because of this late exposure, he is easy to miss, but he was and continues to be a fantastic player in the tradition of other big tenors that jazz listeners are more familiar with. For the debut he teams up with Billy Hart, Kenny Barron, and Buster Williams. They have a good sound that approaches the Prestige or Blue Note gold standard from two decades earlier. This session lacks the production gloss of newer Hill releases like Relax (which is also excellent). Notably, four of the album's seven tracks are Hill's originals. These are modal explorations with contributions from all members of the group. The four musicians play so well together that it's a hard sell for me to believe they weren't working together a lot longer than they were! Finding the vinyl could be a challenge but the recent CD is a worthwhile purchase and comes with a bonus take of Hill's "S.M.Y."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

158. Dick Hyman & Ralph Sutton (1993)

This magical live set was recorded at Berkeley's Maybeck Recital Hall in 1993. Both players have a grand command of the keyboard, and a little bit like the piano recordings of Duke Ellington, they render the music with the arranger's ear for an orchestra. Hyman is off to the left, Sutton on the right. Hearing the two styles in opposition is a marvelous thing. Tumbling down the stairs in effervescent flurries from the high end is Hyman, while Sutton provides a canvas of chording and big rhythmic anchor. Sutton's choruses in tunes like "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" are comparatively rowdy, bordering on barrel house, filled with booming chords and a topsy-turvy swing. Clocking in just shy of five minutes, I think the tune could easily have gone another round, but what we get is such a skyrocket that it's impossible to complain. "Everything Happens to Me" is a solo feature for Sutton, while Hyman gets "Ol' Man River" all to himself. In the latter, Hyman's lines demonstrate a dazzling fluency in blues, bop, and balladry. A shimmering collection of piano jazz by two undisputed masters of the instrument, I highly recommend this collection.

Monday, December 9, 2013

157. Gene Harris Quartet with Frank Wess / It's the Real Soul (1995)

Recorded live across two nights in March of 1995, these eight tracks feature the Gene Harris Quartet (Ron Eschete, g; Luther Hughes, b; Paul Humphrey, d) in the company of Frank Wess. Wess divides his time between four tracks, playing tenor on "Menage a Bleu" and "Estoril Soul," then flute on "Straight No Chaser" and "My Funny Valentine." He is as expressive on the flute as Harris is on the piano, unleashing a diverse assortment of perky phrases and exciting techniques that frame the Monk tune in a perfectly jaunty way, and adding lots of personality to "My Funny Valentine." Nice as it is to have him around for the proceedings, the core band plays with such a big sound and heavy swing that I don't miss him on the other half of the record. Harris works well with guitarist Eschete. Their cooperation in splitting the breaks of "Lady Be Good" turns the old tune into a memorable affair, their choruses developing patiently until the mood reaches a fever pitch. "That's All," which is the last tune on the album, is a fitting closer. Harris teases "Rhapsody in Blue" before really pounding into fully chorded statements, with the crowd loving it. His style on the keyboard is often described as being rooted in a gospel tradition and tracks like "You Don't Know Me" clearly substantiate those descriptions.  

Saturday, December 7, 2013

156. Chet Baker / The Italian Sessions (1962)

Baker's groups in Europe were a mixed lot. Sometimes they were great but sometimes it was just the opposite. Then after a lifetime of drugs, alcohol, and legal trouble, his tone and technique suffered hugely.  I like this disc because it is none of those things. It features Baker on the front line of a charging hard bop sextet. He holds his own flanked by piano, tenor sax, and guitar. His lines are so forthright and aggressive, so strident and even verbose (for Baker) that it hardly even sounds like him. I'm dying to put it in a blindfold test because it's such a curveball. The high spirited band gets started on the first track. "Well You Needn't" is one of two rhythmically thorny pieces in the session, the other being Charlie Parker's "Barbados." In the Monk tune, Baker careens along filling the space above and below him with a clarion tone and fast but thoughtful flits into the upper register. The drummer, Daniel Humair, drives the thing right over the top. Every track is short and concise -- no wasted space, no excessive showboating, no lost attention or bad takes. If you know the Let's Get Lost Chet Baker, the Californian bebop sensibility, the underplayed moody ballads and minimalistic statements in the lower register only, then you could revise that understanding, or at least enrich it, with these eight performances. They even do "Star Eyes," which is one of my favorite tunes by anyone.

Friday, December 6, 2013

155. Earl Bostic / Flamingo (2002)

Flamingo is a double disc compilation by the UK's Proper Records label, covering 1944 to 1951. The audio quality is very good. These groups are like many of the transitional orchestras of the 40s and early 50s. They feature veterans alongside torchbearers from swing to bop and beyond. In the early sides, we hear Bostic with Rex Harris, Cozy Cole, Don Byas, Tiny Grimes, and Lionel Hampton. Later, in his stripped down R&B orchestra, we hear a sampling of Jimmy Cobb, Wilbur Campbell, and Jaki Byard. Listen for the transition from gut busting alto to what became Bostic's trademark technique. In the 1949 sextet, tracks like "Filibuster" show repeated riffing with huge tone, but also a nimble fingered aptitude for clean, double-time runs through the scales, colored here and there with reed buzz. The lovely "Serenade" (Gene Redd on vibes) has a similar feel. Like Ben Webster, Bostic could play with arresting power, or sublime gentleness. "Flamingo," probably his best known track, has become the archetypal rendition, although it isn't much different in structure or appeal than other sides recorded by the group. I like the later sides best, but the early ones are priceless, too. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

154. Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt / Boss Tenors (1961)

If you've got the stereo disc then Ammons is in the right channel and usually goes first. Stitt is in the left channel and comes next, occasionally doubling on alto. The latter was one of the most inspiring alto players there was, but he gets short shrift. A whiz on the alto, he was equally capable on tenor or even baritone (no barisax on this disc). These two players make wonderful music together. It's a solid dance session, with plenty of fireworks and some intriguing knots in the choruses that may interest more serious listeners. "There is No Greater Love" features Stitt on alto. His exhilirating double-time chourses are a thing to marvel at. While trading jabs with each other, the horns take unexpected sidesteps outside the blues, like in Ammons' first chorus of "Autumn Leaves," or some of Stitt's phrases in the smoking "Blues Up and Down." The rhythm section of John Houston, Buster Williams, and George Brown has a good chemistry. Williams' timekeeping meshes well with Brown, and especially Houston's comping style, which favors chunky, chorded statements emphasizing the beat. Their interplay with the leaders during "Blues Up and Down" really kicks the tune into a higher gear. This is a memorable session, and quite enjoyable, to say the least.