Tag Archives: Marty Grosz

Review: Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons, Glasgow

Stu Brown’s Twisted Toons,Recital Room, Glasgow, Saturday June 28th ****

It was impossible not to be charmed by the Twisted Toons concert at the Recital Room on Saturday evening. Not only is drummer Stu Brown an extremely engaging and amiable host, but his passion for Raymond Scott’s cultish compositions – which were used in dozens of classic Warner Bros cartoons as well as the more recent Ren and Stimpy animations – and the performances of them by a septet comprising A-list Scottish jazz musicians make an irresistible combination. That said, however, a little of the Scott repertoire goes a long way…

The opening numbers were highly enjoyable. Jungle Medley was a collection of pieces from Looney Tunes cartoons by Carl Stalling which segued into Scott’s swinging, vaguely early-Ellingtonian composition Dinner Time For a Pack of Hungry Cannibals and featured a superb hot clarinet solo by Martin Kershaw. Scott’s spooky Goblins in the Steeple was another gem, thanks to the terrific ensemble work and a stylish solo by trumpeter Tom MacNiven. The septet sound – of clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, violin, piano, bass and drums – on this number, the playful arrangement and the classy playing brought to mind some of the brilliant work of some of Marty Grosz’s modern-day small, 1920s-style, groups which blend zingy, witty arrangements with top drawer soloing.

Less appealing, however, were full-length cartoon scores – perhaps they would work better if accompanying a screening of the cartoons. The complete scores are too disjointed, and their jazz and tuneful elements too scattered to be satisfying listening on their own for the lay person.

* First published in The Scotsman, Monday June 30th

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Happy Swinging Hallowe’en

Louis Armstrong’s first appearance in a feature film – 1936’s Pennies From Heaven –  found him cast as a trumpet-playing chicken thief who performs at the opening of a haunted house style nightclub .. The great Marty Grosz, who also recorded a terrific version of this song, used to offer audiences a brilliantly funny potted version of the ridiculous plot of this particularly silly film – and it was much more entertaining than the movie itself. But this clip – the perfect Hallowe’en clip for jazz fans – is essential viewing. Louis vanquishes the skeleton with his high notes, while Lionel Hampton is featured on drums!

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What Bix Means to Me: Marty Grosz

The inimitable guitarist and singer has trumpeted the music of Bix Beiderbecke since early in his career: one of his early LPs was entitled Hooray for Bix, and celebrated the spirit of Bix’s small groups while avoiding replicating their recordings. He is currently working on arrangements of five Bix tunes – “nothing to do with the records; no recreation of solos” – for a set at the Chautauqua Jazz Weekend in September. He says:

“I first heard Bix when I was about 14, and Columbia reissued some of his recordings. This was about 1944. The rest of the kids were were into Glenn Miller and the hits of the day – and the big record that everyone in that generation had was Bunny Berigan’s I Can’t Get Started which was a sort of anthem.

“Bix’s band had a bass sax. It sounded strange; quite odd actually – that’s what I liked. I felt – and still feel – that there’s something very affecting about Bix, something touching about his sound. People still haven’t put their finger on it, and I wonder if my impression of it isn’t tinged by his story, like Berigan’s is. You know: the alcoholic whose parents didn’t want him to be a musician – the romance of that story. There’s been more bullshit written about him than about Marilyn Monroe … His life filled the role of unappreciated genius and the public loves that. The best thing you can do for your career is die early.

“This cult sprang up about Bix in the 1930s – the Young Man With a Horn and he became a sort of romantic figure. But when you talked to Bud Freeman and Eddie Condon – guys who knew him – they said simply that he was a great guy, a great player, but he drank too much. They didn’t get it – why people wanted that kind of romantic story.

“Listen to how Bix plays In a Mist – it’s like a stomp. I wish he hadn’t called it In a Mist – it encouraged people to talk about Bix ‘the dreamer’. It’s extrapolation after the fact – but the myth will go on. People need it.

“Nevertheless, I’ve always been touched by the melancholy aspect in his cornet playing – Louis Armstrong had that tinge of melancholy too, and profundity. Listen to Tight Like This. When he plays in the minor, it’s Wagnerian.

“I discovered Louis and Bix at the same point in my life since Bix’s recordings and Louis’s Hot 5 recordings were reissued at pretty much the same time. Whereas the Hot 5 tunes weren’t pop tunes – Louis didn’t really start playing pop tunes till the 1930s – Bix’s tunes were ones that people were still singing and playing when I was a kid: Margie, Somebody Stole My Gal etc. It helped us to assimilate them – it was the pop tunes  that got us first, though I’m Coming Virginia was probably the recording that really hooked me.

“I grew up listening to a couple of New York DJs who played a total mixture of jazz – you’d have Duke Ellington’s Ko-Ko, recorded in 1940, followed by something by Bessie Smith – and I didn’t realise for a long time that her stuff was much older. It was all mixed in together. I was drawn to improvised ensembles, like Bix’s and the Eddie Condon records – things that played with a kind of wild abandon that you really couldn’t hear anywhere else because the fashion at the time was for mostly smooth, suave, arranged stuff. And of course Louis got to me – there was a raucous aspect to him which was missing to the arranged things of the day.

“I love the bittersweet quality to Bix’s sound – Berigan had that too. I love Bix’s solos on Sweet Sue – Just You and China Boy, both with Paul Whiteman. Whatever he did, within two bars, you know who it was. That’s the stamp of a very strong musical personality. The most important thing about a jazz musician is that you can tell who it is instantly.

“Years ago, I was writing about Frank Teschemacher for Time Life and I was sent some clippings of interviews with jazz musicians that had been done by a guy in Chicago during the WPA (Works Progress Administration, which ran relief projects).  This guy had interviewed Muggsy Spanier who told him that he and Bix played duets together. He also interviewed George Barnes,  just 18 at the time, who told him that the first time he understood what swing was was when Jimmy McPartland lent him the record of Bix playing Singin’ the Blues.

“If I had to choose one track, it would be I’m Coming Virginia. Why? The sound! The sound and the note choices he makes. It’s a fully realised performance. It’s just beautiful, that’s all.

“I’d be hard-pressed to choose a second – I love bits in all his recordings but I’ve been enjoying Clementine recently …”

As a tantalising postscript, Marty added that Bud Freeman told him that in 1930, there were plans afoot for a tour of Europe by a group comprising himself, Bix, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Joe Sullivan, Gene Krupa, Dick McDonough and a bass player whose name Freeman couldn’t recall .. It never happened.

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Speaking of Ken Peplowski ….

We interrupt the Edinburgh Jazz Festival coverage to bring you a video I’ve just secured Ken Peplowski’s permission to share… Recorded at the Norwich Jazz Party in May, this is Ken’s serenade to a completely unsuspecting Marty … I’ll be posting more clips soon.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Caption Competition

I set a challenge to the musicians at Norwich: who could come up with the best caption for this classic photo of the inimitable Marty Grosz, here having trouble fixing his bow tie… And the winner was: Ken Peplowski. Of course!

Due to budget cuts, the Texas prison system is now forcing condemned prisoners to hang themselves.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Monday afternoon

The last day of the Norwich Jazz Party got off to a rousing start. If ever there was a set guaranteed to wake you up it was the one which launched the sensational new CD by Alan Barnes and Warren Vache – The London Session (Woodville Records). I have to confess to feeling a sort of  motherly pride as they began playing the music which was already very familiar to me as I wrote the liner notes for the record, and had interviewed them extensively in the process.

So, hearing the very distinctive and stylish arrangements of such numbers as My Funny Valentine and, especially, a hangover-blasting Molasses played live was a particular treat. And, since not all of the Woodville All-Stars, with whom Barnes and Vache recorded the CD, were at the party, they were replaced by the likes of trombonist John Allred, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, adding a different flavour to the tunes.

Barnes himself farmed out his baritone sax duties to Karen Sharp (who turned in a gorgeous extended solo on Sophisticated Lady), and was able to devote himself to some ace alto solo work instead, notably on an uptempo Love For Sale – a number which also had him playing bass clarinet.

For Sharp, The London Session er, session was an excellent warm-up for her own set of Gerry Mulligan-associated music later in the afternoon. It was interesting to note how many of the musicians made a point of listening to her set – the same thing happened with pianist Rossano Sportiello’s solo session later that night. And no wonder: both are lovely, lyrical players who grabbed the audience’s attention and kept them spellbound.

In fact, having your attention grabbed and then being bound to your seat are the risks you run if you attend a jazz party like this. The fear of missing what might turn out to be THE set of the weekend leads to marathon bouts of sitting still (some of the audience members looked as if they should be checked over for DVT), and, frankly, after a while the music just starts to wash over you. (I was completely jazz-lagged by Sunday afternoon.)

My leg is still bruised from the kicking I gave myself for missing most of the Basie set led by Rossano Sportiello on Sunday at lunchtime – the self-abuse began almost as soon as Scott Hamilton wrapped his horn around a sumptuous Blue and Sentimental… At least I got to hear him and Sportiello again – this time in a duo, playing some glorious music from their recent CD – on Monday afternoon. Among the many highlights was a high speed This Can’t Be Love – featuring a rollicking solo from Sportiello and Hamilton working up a head of steam on tenor – and the poignant ballad A Garden in the Rain which highlighted the tenderness and gentleness of Sportiello’s piano playing in particular.

Of course, there’s just no way I would ever risk missing the Ken ‘n’ Marty show – sadly only 20 minutes long this year but one for the history books as it featured this longstanding double act’s first onstage kiss, midway through Ken Peplowski’s sung serenade to Marty Grosz (pictured above) of When Did You Leave Heaven? Amidst the hilarity there was some lovely music – for the serenade they were joined by John Pearce (piano),  Alec Dankworth (bass) and John Allred whose mellow obbligato work behind Peplowski’s vocals was a delight. Peplowski himself was on great form, notably on a speed limit-breaking version of Walter Donaldson’s You, an old favourite of this duo. And Grosz, who has enjoyed better health this year than before last year’s Norwich expedition, was in similarly fine fettle, and evidently relishing the musical and comedy antics.

Other stand-out moments of the afternoon? Pianist Tardo Hammer’s elegant and funky set which revealed the great rapport he’s established with British drum whiz Steve Brown, Dan Block’s set of colourful and complex, John Kirby-style arrangements of Fats Waller songs, and Jim Galloway’s serene tribute to Pee Wee Russell – I’d Climb the Highest Mountain. When the young Galloway complimented Russell on his handling of the tune, he was told that he liked to play it “because it was a favourite of Bix’s”.

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Norwich Jazz Party 2011: Sunday

The timetable may be gruelling – and the pressure may have been on, what with the volume of often tricky arrangements to be rehearsed -but what shone through from Sunday’s sessions at the jazz party was how much the musicians who come to Norwich relish the chance to play together in imaginative programmes with all sorts of different line-ups.

On Sunday, a set of Cannonball Adderley-associated music acted as a sort of touch paper for some particularly fiery, feisty playing by cornettist Warren Vache who recently told me how much he enjoys playing bop – and how seldom he gets to do it. Vache seemed to explode into life on this set, notably on a storming version of the enormously catchy Work Song, and he was aided and abetted by five fellow enthusiasts including Tardo Hammer, whose kittenish way with the keys offset the three-horn front line beautifully; Karen Sharp, whose dynamic baritone playing was a joy, and set-leader Alan Barnes in similarly energetic form. But it was Vache’s forceful, take-no-prisoners playing that stole the show.

If the Cannonball set brought out the tough – yet always lyrical – side of Vache, then his after-dinner set with guitarist Dave Cliff and bassist Dave Green inevitably showcased his sweet side. You only had to see this line-up listed in the programme to know that you were in for a treat. Vache’s taste is flawless – both in terms of the tunes he chooses, and the way in which he delivers them.

Really, the whole thing was a knockout, but it was a particular delight to hear him tease out extra magic from the sublime Richard Rodgers ballad My Romance which he played quietly, tenderly and with what seemed an air of exquisite resignation. You Don’t Know What Love Is and Triste were others which sounded as if they had been written specially for him, banishing as they did every other version from the memory. You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To was vintage Vache: swaying gently from side to side, the cornettist played with his trademark playful and seductive swagger, softly and persuasively at the start; bluesy and more assertively by the end.

Another musician who was on top form throughout the jazz party was guitarist Marty Grosz who may now be 81 but is clearly rejuvenated by performing. Sunday afternoon proved to be the perfect slot for a delightfully good-natured set  on which he was joined by Nick Dawson (piano), Jim Galloway (soprano sax) and Duke Heitger (trumpet); the latter two emerging as something of a noteworthy duo over the weekend.

The mood was established straight-away with an uplifting take on You Are My Lucky Star (probably the first time I’ve ever heard this at a jazz concert), but it was a gorgeous, laid-back take on Love Is Just Around the Corner which lingered in the mind long after the music had ended. It was the perfect example of musical camaraderie.

The same could be said of singer-pianist Daryl Sherman’s late-night set which featured the second You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To of the evening for the versatile Dave Cliff.  Mind you, second time around it was quite a different affair; one which played on the coquettish quality of Sherman’s voice.

The cosy piano-bass-guitar line-up swelled to a quartet with the co-opting of tenor man Houston Person (whose sumptuous Fools Rush In a couple of hours earlier had been inspired by his not-so secret love of Doris Day!)  into the proceedings for a couple of terrific Rodgers and Hart numbers: a lovely Little Girl Blue (also a Doris song), on which Sherman’s suitably wistful, girlish vocals were complemented by Person’s masculine, bluesy sound, and a hard-swinging This Can’t Be Love; a perfect partner to his frisky Isn’t It Romantic of the afternoon…

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