Tag Archives: Ben Webster

The Sound of Jazz at 60

Sound of Jazz 2Sixty years ago, at 5pm on Sunday December 8, 1957, a television broadcast went out on air and down in the pages of music history. The Sound of Jazz was made as a one-off show for a CBS series called The Seven Lively Arts, but it has ended up as a priceless treasure trove which has been systematically plundered by makers of jazz documentaries and which is, unfortunately, seen in its entirety all too rarely (although it can, of course, be found on YouTube).

The show was the brainchild of CBS producer Robert Herridge who had the further inspiration of leaving the selection of the musicians involved to two eminent jazz critics, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliett. Hentoff and Balliett were given complete artistic control, and the results – six numbers featuring 32 of the top musicians on the jazz scene – were stimulating, surprising, and historically invaluable.

Balliett and Hentoff created various small groups featuring musicians who seldom had the chance to work together. They teamed clarinettist Pee Wee Russell – a player who was still associated with Chicago jazz of the 1930s in the minds of many – with the young clarinettist of the moment, Jimmy Giuffre. They even convinced Count Basie that he should lead an all-star big band of their choosing rather than his own, regular, outfit.

The influence of Hentoff and Balliett extended beyond the musical. It was they who decided that the show should have the minimum amount of chat, the maximum amount of music, and the informal feel of an after-hours jam session or a recording date. The musicians were asked to turn up in casual gear – there was to be none of the artifice associated with television entertainment shows of the day. Not all of the participants were initially happy with the dress code, however. Hentoff later wrote that singer Billie Holiday’s response was: ”I just spent five hundred goddam dollars on a gown!”

The resulting look and atmosphere of The Sound of Jazz are inextricably bound together with the music in the memory of anyone who has seen this icon-packed programme. Cigarette smoke billows around the horns of the Basie band as it rip roars its way through the opening number. The cameras – there were several, covering every angle since this was a live transmission – roamed about the undecorated studio, and were able to provide excellent close-ups of the likes of the bug-eyed blues singer Jimmy Rushing.

Thanks to director Jack Smight’s eye for detail, the unusual method with which pianist Thelonious Monk kept time was captured for posterity: we see him scliff his foot along the floor as he played his most famous number, Blue Monk. We also see other musicians’ reactions to the playing of Monk, an outsider whose discordant playing revolutionised jazz piano. Fellow pianist Count Basie is shown sitting at the other side of Monk’s piano, listening intently to and clearly delighted by what he hears. Tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins can also be glimpsed, snapping his fingers along with the music.

For the jazz fan there is endless pleasure to be found in the simplest of the many details which were caught on camera during The Sound of Jazz, in particular a rare chance to witness the interaction between musicians as they play.

Of the six numbers, one eight-minute long piece stands out. The show’s all-star version of Billie Holiday’s blues Fine and Mellow has taken on a life of its own. To appreciate fully the import of this song, consider these facts. The song signalled the reunion – after a period of estrangement – of Holiday and her musical soulmate, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, both of whom were dead within 18 months of the show. Shortly after the transmission, Young was given two months to live. He died in March 1959, and Holiday followed him four months later.

At the time of The Sound of Jazz, however, Holiday was in good form: Doc Cheatham later recalled that she was in jovial mood and invited all the musicians back to her place afterwards. Young, on the other hand, was so physically fragile that his parts in the Basie big band numbers had to be split between Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, and he remained sitting down through most of Fine and Mellow.

Of course Fine and Mellow is one of the last great performances by Holiday, whose voice was still magnificent despite its splintered, needle-scratched grain. Dressed in twinset and slacks, with her hair pulled back into a sophisticated ponytail, she looked beautiful, laid-back, and happy. She was surrounded by some of her favourite musicians – Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Doc Cheatham, Gerry Mulligan, Vic Dickenson, and, of course, Lester Young, whose solo – a beautifully understated and superbly constructed blues chorus of almost unbearable poignancy – and the reunion which it represented, reduced Nat Hentoff and some of the other observers to tears.

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CD Recommendations: February 2014

Oscar Peterson & Ben Webster: During This Time (Art of Groove)Oscar Peterson & Ben Webster CD
Not only is this previously unreleased live quartet performance from 1972 available here in CD form, but the two-disc pack also includes a 64-minute DVD of the film footage of the concert so fans can enjoy a wonderful opportunity to watch two giants of jazz in all their seventies splendour (Peterson’s a vision in pink checked suit and Crayola Violet Red tie). The camera gets so close, in fact, that it’s possible to study the legendary tenor saxophonist Webster’s embarrassed facial expressions as his masterful solo on I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good is applauded, and to count the beads of sweat on the Peterson brow. Among the non-stop musical highlights are the funky Poutin’, a rollicking Cotton Tail and particularly gorgeous versions of such ballads as Duke Ellington’s sublime Come Sunday.
Various Artists: Unissued on 78s – Jazz & Hot Music 1927-1931 (Challenge Records/Retrieval Records)Unissued on 78s
As Chris Ellis’s liner notes make clear, the 24 tracks on this wonderful compilation may have appeared on LPs and CDs, but none were ever issued on 78s – and several have never previously been heard at all. If you want a flavour of the kind of hot jazz that the cool college kids were dancing to in the last few years of Prohibition, this CD is ideal. Featuring music by some of best white bands of the day, it boasts Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke, the Dorseys, Hoagy Carmichael, Joe Venuti  and Miff Mole in its impressive line-up, as well as a raft of excellent but lesser-remembered musicians. Bix fans will delight in the rarely available Deep Down South plus Just Imagine, a track which fires debate about whether it’s Bix or a disciple playing. There’s even pleasure to be had in the Wodehouse-worthy names of such musicians as Snooks Friedman, Nappy Lamare and Fud Livingston.
Rene Marie: I Wanna Be Evil – With Love to Eartha Kitt (Motema)

Rene Marie CD
She may have sworn never to record a tribute album, but the American vocalist Rene Marie has produced a winner with this homage to Eartha Kitt, whose spell – as she eloquently explains in her fascinating liner notes – she first, unwittingly, fell under when Kitt played Catwoman in the Batwoman TV series and Rene was a black-female-role-model hungry ten-year-old. The homage only extends to the choice of songs and the spirit of sexual abandon that Rene Marie conjures up; her breathy, lush voice – thankfully, for those of us who find a little of Kitt goes a long way – is nothing like the original, and the arrangements are re-imaginings of the familiar Kitt versions. Her accompanying sextet features an impressive contribution from Adrian Cunningham on clarinet.
Scott Hamilton: Swedish Ballads and More (Stunt) Scott Hamilton - Swedish Ballads & More
The great American tenor sax star is now an elder statesman of the jazz scene and he seems to be recording more prolifically than ever. This new CD finds him in the company of a Scandinavian trio and playing mostly songs with a Swedish connection. As ever, it’s a joy to hear his big, authoritative tone, lyrical style and the easygoing bounce which gives way to some barnstorming swinging on the uptempo Swing in F. Hamilton is a master balladeer and this album’s stand-out is You Can’t Be In Love With a Fool, a pretty ballad penned in 1953 by a Swedish songwriter named Ulf Sandstrom, which is also notable for Jan Lundgren’s elegant pianistics.
Dominic Alldis Trio: A Childhood Suite (Canzona Music)Dominic Alldiss - A Childhood Suite
Four years ago, the English pianist, composer and arranger Alldis released Songs We Heard, a collection of piano trio improvisations on nursery rhyme themes. With A Childhood Suite he revisits 14 of these tunes, in the company of a string orchestra – and the results are lovely, with the strings adding a richness and cinematic quality to the proceedings, while contrasting with the lightness of Alldis’s piano touch. There are some memorable moments of witty interplay between piano and strings, notably on London Bridge and I Saw Three Ships, and a funky arrangement of Three Blind Mice that’s so catchy it could change the way you sing that tune ..
Liane Carroll: Ballads (Quiet Money)Liane Carroll CD
The unimaginative title of British singer-pianist Liane Carroll’s new album belies the unexpected choices of songs included. Against a backdrop of strings arrangements (particularly effective on the Sinatra classic Only the Lonely) or accompanied by guitar – as she is on such gorgeously simple and affecting tracks as the opener Here’s to Life and the slowed-down Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow – Carroll sets out her stall as a passionate, gutsy interpreter of songs, with a larger-than-life musical presence and soul-oriented vocal style.

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Ellington’s World Comes to Edinburgh

One of the most prestigious – and ambitious – items in this year’s Edinburgh Jazz Festival programme is a concert by a brand-new, specially-formed band on the penultimate night of the ten-day event. And, bizarrely, we have the Olympics to thank for it ..

Festival producer Roger Spence explains: “The idea is that in the Olympic year, when people are coming from all over the world to London, we thought we could create a concert programme which reflects jazz as an international music. In recent years, we’ve established the Edinburgh Jazz Festival Orchestra – the concept of which is to blend eight Scottish musicians with eight international ones – but with the World Jazz Orchestra, every single member of the band comes from a different country – we have musicians coming from all over the globe.”

Taking this idea and running with it, 100-metre style, Spence realised that there was one obvious body of work from which a programme could be formed for this melting pot band. “We know that jazz is international but we wanted music with a universal appeal and for a big event like this, we had to choose a composer who is regarded by many as the very best – so we chose Duke Ellington. And the wonderful thing about Duke Ellington as far as this project is concerned, is that he wrote music inspired by music and countries all over the world. We can reflect different flavours of world music through the prism of one composer.”

The choice of Duke Ellington led straight back to Scotland and to the jazz festival itself: over recent years, the great, Fife-born baritone saxophonist and one-time member of the Ellington band Joe Temperley (pictured above) has forged a strong relationship with the festival. “He was the obvious choice to lead the World Jazz Orchestra,” explains Spence. Temperley is more familiar than most with the vast Ellington repertoire: not only did he play in the band, following the death of its original baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, but he has also – in the context of his membership of Wynton Marsalis’s acclaimed Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra – played many of the Duke’s seldom-performed suites.

And key excerpts from one such suite are at the heart of next Saturday’s concert. Along with such exotic pieces as the Far East Suite and the Latin-American Suite, the orchestra will play some of Ellington’s landmark Black, Brown and Beige, which was performed for the first time by the Ellington band for its Carnegie Hall debut in 1943. This historic concert in aid of Russian War Relief was sold out (3000 seats) days beforehand but the demand for tickets remained so intense that a further 200 people were seated on the stage.

For Ellington aficionados, the 47-minute tone poem, which fused jazz, blues, spirituals and Spanish influences, and reflected the Afro-American experience from the arrival of the first wave of slaves off boats in 1619, was a thrill to hear – though the critics were not as quick to embrace this, the jazz composer’s first, full-blown suite. Jazz critics worried that he was forsaking jazz (though he had written a number of extended compositions before, including Symphony in Black which had similar themes), while the classical world was dismissive of his aspirations as a “serious” composer.

Indeed, Ellington – who later said: “We stopped using the word jazz in 1943; that was the point when we didn’t believe in categories” – never performed it again in its entirety in concert though he recorded numerous versions of it. Some parts of it – notably the magnificent spiritual Come Sunday, written for the alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and performed by him at Carnegie Hall almost before the ink had dried on the arrangements – have taken on a life of their own. On the Ellington orchestra’s 1958 recording of Black, Brown and Beige, Come Sunday was sung by Mahalia Jackson. Since then, vocalists as diverse as jazz singer Lee Wiley and soul singer Gladys Knight have performed it – and in Edinburgh next week, it will be sung by Cecile McLorin Salvant, whom Temperley recommended for the job.

For the octogenarian musician, it’s a joy to be able to bring this music to an Edinburgh audience. “I love Black, Brown and Beige,” he says. “It’s one of my very favourite Ellington suites. I’m particularly fond of the version with Ben Webster where he plays the solo on The Blues. We’ll be doing that piece in Edinburgh, with the Danish tenor saxophonist Jesper Thilo following in the footsteps of Webster, Al Sears and Paul Gonsalves.”

Of course, Black, Brown and Beige – as with all of Ellington’s work – was written specifically for the musicians in his band at the time; for their individual and combined sounds. Temperley says: “The secret of Ellington’s success was the ‘Ellingtonians’ – Harry Carney, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Johnny Hodges etc. He wrote for them. It was like a Shakespeare company. It was more than a band; it was a collection of individuals that came together and were marshalled together in an unusual way – those different voicings he used, like two trombones and a baritone.. He did not have those in mind harmonically; he was thinking of the personalities of the musicians who’d be playing.”

Given this, is it more of a challenge to play Ellington’s music; do you approach it differently? “I would say so. If you play a Basie arrangement, it’s pretty straight-ahead. With Ellington, you have to bear in mind the people who went before, and not try to impersonate them. Of course you’re influenced by them, but you shouldn’t try to sound like them.” A tall order – but Temperley and his international team will no doubt have earned their gold medals by the time they’ve completed their Ellington marathon.

* The World Jazz Orchestra plays at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, July 28. For more information visit www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

First published in The Scotsman, Thursday July 19, 2012

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Le Grand Grump

This piece, published in the Sunday Herald in June 2011, was great fun to write – thanks to its subject’s wilful lack of co-operation …  In the excitement of the jazz festival, I forgot to post it – but I’ve had requests recently to do so.

“Can you articulate slowly like I’m doing? Do you speak Russian? Or Japanese?” So begins my interview with the award-winning film composer and jazz arranger/pianist Michel Legrand, who is playing the Glasgow Jazz Festival next week. Instead of the anticipated Gallic charm, I find myself being treated to some Gallic grumpiness as he huffs and puffs and claims to understand neither my Scottish nor my French accent.

Just as I begin to fear for the future of the Auld Alliance, a miracle occurs. Without having to get a translator (or a neutral negotiator – he does live in Geneva, after all) involved – and before either of us hangs up on the other – he answers the original, troublesome question (which he had clearly understood perfectly well). And so begins an interview which really only improves once I twig that articulating like he does means pronouncing American names in an ‘Allo ‘Allo style – Deezy Gillespeee, Gene Kellee, Beex Beederbecke.

Actually, it’s only when he starts waxing lyrical about the great American jazz men that he’s heard that the 79-year-old temporarily stops being exasperated. Legrand, who had been a child prodigy on the piano, was studying classical composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger when he became hooked on jazz.

“I first heard it on the radio when I was a kid. But at that time there was a German occupation in France and jazz was forbidden – so we heard some lousy jazz . Then, just after the war, in 1947 Deezy Gillespee came to Paris to give concerts. I was in the audience and I was ecstatic. I was extremely excited by it.”

The boy wonder of the French music scene in the 1950s, Legrand juggled playing jazz with being in demand as an arranger for such top stars as Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. Indeed, it was as Maurice Chevalier’s music director that he made his first trip to America. And it was there, in 1958, that he made his first recording with American jazz musicians – LeGrand Jazz, a collection of his contemporary reworkings of classic jazz tunes from earlier decades. It’s a sign of how highly regarded the young Parisian arranger was (he had already sold seven million copies of his LP I Love Paris in just two years) that he asked for – and got most of the biggest names in jazz at the time. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Herbie Mann.

How did these guys react to a 26-year-old French kid running the show? “They were very kind to me,” recalls Legrand, homing in on the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster who was “un bon papa” to him. One musician who could have been a handful was the star of the moment, trumpeter Miles Davis. Luckily, however, he behaved.

“Miles was adorable with me. I was told that when he’s hired to do a session, he comes on purpose 15 minutes late. He opens the door of the studio and before he enters, he listens to the rehearsal of the orchestra. If he likes it, he comes in and plays. If he doesn’t like it, he closes the door and he goes away and you never see him.

“So I knew this, and I was extremely nervous. And he did exactly that! He came 15 minutes late. He opened the door, he listened to the rehearsal of the orchestra for a few minutes, then he came in, sat down and after the first take, he came to me and said [Legrand assumes a growlly voice that sounds like a Glaswegian heavy]: ‘Michel, you like the way I play?’ I said: ‘Miles, it’s not my job to tell you how to play.’ He said: ‘Yes, it is – because it is your music.’ Isn’t that nice? That’s beautiful.”

In the late 1950s, Legrand began working with the young film directors who launched the New Wave style of cinema. One of his most enduring scores was written for Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), in which all the dialogue was sung. He and Demy – plus the film’s star, Catherine Deneuve, were reunited three years later for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, a homage to the Hollywood musical which also starred Gene Kelly. Indeed, it was Legrand who brought Kelly to the project, having collaborated with him on various projects and become “very close friends”.

Perhaps one reason for Legrand’s longevity in the music and entertainment businesses is the fact that he finds he doesn’t want to do the same job for more than a decade at a time. After ten years scoring films in France, he relocated to the States where, almost immediately, he won an Oscar for his song The Windmills of Your Mind, from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Among the many other film scores he has written are The Go-Between (1970), Summer of ’42 (1971), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Never Say Never Again (1983) and Yentl (1983).

Barbra Streisand, the star of Yentl, has proved to be one of several notoriously difficult stars – Stan Getz and Miles Davis are others – with whom Legrand has worked extremely well. Perhaps, given what I experienced down a phone line from him, it’s a case of like likes like …

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CD Recommendations: July 2011

Ben Webster & Johnny Hodges: The Complete 1960 Sextet Jazz Cellar Recordings (Solar Records) Released for the first time in its complete form, this is a historic encounter between two of the greatest exponents of the saxophone in jazz: tenor man Webster and altoist Hodges. It does not disappoint; in fact, it’s an absolute treasure, a must for fans of Hodges’s sinewy sound and/or Webster’s breathy tenor – and anyone who loves funky, blues-infused jazz. The dream team is swingingly accompanied by a quartet featuring Lou Levy (piano) and Herb Ellis (guitar), and this 17-track CD also includes five rare octet outings from 1961. Blues’ll Blow Your Fuse, Ifida and The Mooche-like I’d Be There (surely a tribute to their Ellingtonian background?) are among the many stand-outs.. Frankly, I’ve been playing this obsessively since before I even got my own copy (I had already worn out my dad’s) – and I’m hoping that that great tenor-alto duo of our time, Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, unearth some of these brilliant tunes for their next joint outing..

Carol Kidd & Nigel Clark: Tell Me Once Again (Linn Records)

Vested interest declaration time: I wrote the liner notes for this, the first duo CD by the peerless Scots vocalist Kidd and her wonderful guitarist Clark. Their duets have long been highlights of Kidd’s concerts, and this collection of 12 songs shows why. This is musical storytelling at its best, and a superb example of the scope within the duo format: along with several exquisite ballads, the songs range from R ‘n’ B – You Don’t Know Me – to a bossa nova version of Stevie Wonder’s Moon Blue. There’s a lovely arc to this highly personal album which culminates, fittingly, with The End of a Love Affair.

Cal Tjader-Stan Getz Sextet (OJC Remasters )

Stan Getz’s playing is like a cool summer breeze, and this lovely 1958 album is as fresh and lovely-sounding as his more famous, subsequent, bossa nova LPs. He and vibes player Tjader have a great rapport, and, accompanied by a quartet that includes pianist Vince Guaraldi, work their way through a delicious mix of standards and Tjader-penned tunes, with Guaraldi’s joyful Ginza Samba a rousing opener. A gem.

Scott Hamilton & Rossano Sportiello: Midnight at Nola’s Penthouse (Arbors Records)

In recent years, the American tenor sax great Scott Hamilton and the nimble-fingered Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello have increasingly sought out each other’s musical company, and their affinity is evident on all ten tracks included here. The phrase “less is more” could have been coined for this supremely tasteful double act: Sportiello’s delicate touch and Hamilton’s soulful, breathy sax were made for each other, and the choices of off-the-beaten-track tunes – among them such ballads as the beautifully spare Wonder Why, A Garden in the Rain and In the Middle of a Kiss – are spot-on.

Karen Sharp: Spirit (Trio Records) 
Baritone saxophonist Karen Sharp graduated from the Humphrey Lyttelton band and is now established as an in-demand solo star, who fits perfectly into mainstream and contemporary line-ups. This quartet CD, which features her Tokyo Trio colleague Nikki Iles on piano, veers more towards the contemporary and features mainly jazz compositions written by pianists as well as some familiar movie/musical numbers. A terrific introduction to Sharp’s authoritative, always-swinging baritone sax style.

Warren Vache, Alan Barnes and the Woodville All-Stars: The London Session (Woodville Records) Having written the liner notes, I’ve been living with this CD for months – and I’m still finding more things to love about it. Cornettist Vache and multi-instrumentalist Barnes may have worked together many times but this album is as exciting as they come: it features them getting their teeth into some imaginative arrangements in a septet setting. Their delight in each other’s company is evident throughout, and both are at the top of their game, notably when tearing up such storming numbers as Molasses.

Various: First Impulse – The Creed Taylor Collection 50th Anniversary (Verve) To mark the 50th anniversary of the iconic jazz label Impulse!, founded by producer Creed Taylor, an impressive, four-disc (but LP size) box set has been released comprising all six of the albums that Taylor himself produced – plus some previously unissued rehearsals by John Coltrane. It’s a great collection, with classic recordings from Ray Charles (Genius + Soul = Jazz), Gil Evans (Out of the Cool), Oliver Nelson (Blues and The Abstract Truth), Coltrane (Africa/Brass) and Kai Winding (The Great Kai and The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones).

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