Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lionel Hampton: A Founding Father of the Jazz Vibraphone

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“When he joined Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1936, Lionel Hampton’s principal instrument, the vibraphone, was relatively unknown in the jazz world as a whole.
Hampton, more than anyone, is largely responsible for taking what was a quasi-novelty sound—essentially a "souped up" xylophone with added vibrato effect— and transforming it into a mainstream jazz instrument. …

Hampton's work in the context of the Goodman combo gave the "vibes" (as it eventually came to be known) a new level of legiti­macy. Of course, Hampton's energy, inventiveness, enthusiasm, and sheer sense of swing also had much to do with this. His was a style built on abundance: long loping lines, blistering runs of sixteenth notes, baroque ornamentations, all accompanied by an undercurrent of grunting and humming from above.

Few figures of the be-bop era, with the obvious exception of Tatum (with whom the vibraphonist later jousted in a session of note-filled excesses), could squeeze more into a sixteen-bar solo than Hampton. In the battle of form versus content, the latter always won when this seminal figure was on stage.”

- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, [p.151, paraphrased]

“Hampton’s exuberant improvising, always full of high spirits, heady emotion and finger-poppin’ excitement, marvelously complemented [pianist] Teddy Wilson’s cooler, more controlled virtuosity. Between the two of them, they suggested the full range of expressive possibilities in Benny Goodman’s own playing.”

- Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman

“The exuberance and excitement and feeling of exultation that Lionel Hampton contributes to any musical occasion with which he is associated are absolutely amazing. No other single performer in American jazz—and in American big bands, too—has so consistently and joyously incited and inspired his fellow musicians and his listening audiences. For Hamp invariably projects a wonderful, uninhibited aura of spontaneity that brightens every place in which he performs and that assures everyone within earshot that music, fast or slow, screaming or sentimental, can be a joy forever—or at least as long as Lionel happens to be playing it.…

The band that Hamp eventually led, and continued to lead for many years thereafter, was primarily a swinging one, a high-flying swinging one, com­plete with brilliant showmanship and musicianship from Hampton and a whole series of talented musicians whom he discovered and inserted into his lineups.

Hamp always surrounded himself with outstanding musicians, …. [He]had a good ear and a good eye for new talent, and the list of musi­cians he has discovered is truly an amazing one. "We've been the breeding place of some fine jazz musicians," he told me one day, as he reeled off, with obvious pride, such names as Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, Illinois Jacquet, Lucky Thompson, Joe Newman, Ernie Royal, Cat Anderson, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer and many more, as well as singers Dinah Washington and Joe Williams.”

- George T. Simon, The Big Bands, 4th Ed.


In looking back, Lionel Hampton was there at the beginning of my Jazz “Life.”

He holds a special place in my coming-of-age in the music as he was the vibraphonist in the very first small Jazz group I ever heard.

Lionel was a member of clarinetist Benny Goodman’s quartet which also featured Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums.

The irrepressible swing of this combo made an indelible mark on me and I’ve always held the music played Benny’s quartet as the standard by which to evaluate other combos.

Cohesiveness, listening closely to one another, sharing the solo spotlight but, above all, swinging with a sense of a firm rhythmic propulsion.

These are the qualities that impressed me in Benny’s quartet and its what I want to experience when I listen to other small groups.

Benny’s quartet had so much energy and enthusiasm and to my ear, the spark that ignited these qualities was Lionel Hampton.

Following his time with Benny Goodman, Lionel moved on to lead his own small groups and big bands for over 60 years.

The Jazz world also moved on and away from the style of Jazz that Hampton represented until his death in 2002.

For many of the reasons described in the following excerpts from Günter Schuller’s monumental The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, Lionel became less of an artistic Jazz performer and more of a commercially successful one, especially for those fans who prefer their Jazz expressed in a more discriminating manner.

When Universal Pictures made The Benny Goodman Story in 1955, it reassembled the Goodman quartet to appear as themselves in the movie.

While they were in town for the filming of the movie,  the Jazz impresario Norman Granz had his usual excellent presence-of-mind to bring Lionel, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa together to record a album for his then recently formed Verve Records label.

I coupled some schimolies together from my newspaper delivery route savings and bought a copy which I virtually wore-out while practicing to it.

Airmail Special from this Verve album is the audio track on the video tribute to Lionel Hampton at the conclusion of this profile about one of Jazz’s Founding Fathers. Teddy, Lionel and Gene all play exceptional solos. Have a look and a listen and see what you think.


© -  Günter Schuller/Oxford University Press , copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Hampton has been one of the most successful and enduring multi-instrumentalists in jazz, obviously one of the few outstanding vibraphone solo­ists, but a drummer and (mostly two-fingered) pianist and talented singer as well. …

In any period of its history, one is tempted to apply the word unique to Lionel Hampton. Certainly no one has outrivaled Hampton in sheer exuberance, phys­ical as well as emotional. Motored by a seemingly limitless supply of energy and stamina, Hampton's playing is known the world over for its relentless physicality, unhampered technical facility (especially on vibraphone), and a seemingly im­perturbable inventiveness. Limitless outpourings of rhythmic energy being al­ways more admired in the popular arena than subtlety or refinement of thought, Hampton's image as the unremitting hard swingster has far outstripped an aware­ness of his considerable lyric and melodic talents.

To be sure, Hampton's approach to music is often unsubtle, uncritical, at times even tasteless. In truth, when he assaults his drums, brutalizes the piano keyboard in his hammered two-finger style, pounds the vibraphone into submis­sion, the perspiration quotient is high indeed, its inspiration equivalent often considerably lower. Both in his ability to generate audience frenzy and in his own susceptibility to it, Hampton foreshadowed the empty-minded hysteria of today's more outrageous rock singers. Nor is the distance between rock and Hampton's 1940s' early form of rhythm-and-blues all that great, certainly not in respect to its rhythmic, dynamic, and energy levels.

What all this unfortunately obscures is Hampton's talents as a balladeer, both as a vibraharpist and a singer, and his equally innate ability to express himself in gentler, more subtle ways.


Hampton's is a natural, uncomplicated musical talent—almost casually inven­tive—in which the sheer joy of performing, the direct unfurrowed communica­tion to an audience, is more important than any critical or intellectual assess­ment of it. He is in this sense also not a leader, the way Ellington and Lunceford, for example, were.

Stylistic identity and the creation of a recognizable individual orchestral style have never been uppermost in Hampton's thoughts, succumbing instead to a randomness of approach that accounts for much of the inconsistency of quality in both of his own playing and that of his accompanying groups, large or small. Indeed, his ambivalence in these matters caused him, when he contemplated forming a large band, to consider seriously any number of orchestral options, ranging from hot to sweet, from frantic jump to sedate dance, including the use of a large string section.

Fortunately Hampton did in the end opt for a more orthodox jazz instrumentation, one which in due course became pre-eminent as a dynamic hard-driving swinging ensemble.” [excerpted, pp. 393-394] …

“Great originality and well-conceived solos are, however, not Hampton's forte. He is not so much a creator as he is a compiler. His solos tend to consist of a series of remembered or "common practice" motives, which he infuses with his own brand of energy and strings together into a musical discourse. While this method ensures that Hampton is never at a loss for ideas, the solos tend to be based too much on patterns and repetitions, rather than development of ideas. Hampton improvisations are more apt to be a collection of riffs. This is espe­cially true in faster temps, whereas in more relaxed contexts his melodic and ornamental gifts are given freer rein. More disturbing even than the reliance on patterns, however, is Hampton's fatal compulsion for musical quotations. Un­critical audiences, of course, love these diversions, delighted to recognize some snippet from the musical public domain and enjoying the improviser's challenge of fitting it into, say, a 2-bar break, a challenge Hampton never fails to meet. The liability of these tactics, however, on a serious level is that they inevitably interrupt the musical argument, rather than extend or develop it. For all of Hampton's inordinate facility, his music-making is often indiscriminate and un­critical.

Hampton is also rarely adventurous harmonically. He may appreciate the "modern" orchestral settings provided by many of his arrangers, but he himself rarely contributes significantly in the way of harmonic/melodic explorations, being generally content to maintain a more conservative stance, well-rooted in the swing language of the thirties.” [excerpted p. 397]

Hampton is what he is, and no amount of latter-day analyzing can—or should— make him into anything else. He is, like Armstrong, one of the old school, where the entertainer role is always prominent, perhaps even primary. And like Armstrong—though certainly not on his creative level—Hampton is a dedicated artist-musician and craftsman, his flamboyance and exhibitionism not withstand­ing. And perhaps most significantly, Hampton has been the keeper of a venera­ble tradition which, though it stands apart from all recent developments in jazz, is nevertheless a respectable one and one which Hampton, given his age and stature, is well entitled to preserve.” [excerpted, p. 402]


Friday, November 25, 2011

Victor’s Vibes


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


For many years, the late Milt Jackson, affectionately known as “Bags,” was heralded as the undisputed king of the vibraphone and most vibists accorded him their highest esteem and pointed to him as a major influence.

I, too, love his playing, especially in the context of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

But I’ve always had trouble with the notion of ranking Jazz musicians, voting for them in polls and comparing them as artists. I think it’s an absolute waste of time; a meaningless exercise.

Jazz artists work very hard to establish their own approach to the music and I would imagine that, as is the case with actors, writers and painters, they have a tendency to gravitate toward those artists whose work “speaks” to them.

What, then, are the standards that one has to meet to be rated as “better” than another artist?

As Aristotle once said: “Each of us is different with regard to those things we have in common.”

And so it is with Jazz musicians in general and, for the purpose of this feature, Jazz vibraphonists in particular. Everyone imitates and emulates while trying to establish their own voice on an instrument.

Vibes are particularly challenging to play uniquely because of the limitations inherent in how the sound is produced on them.

Bags’ influence was pervasive when it came to Jazz vibes. I’ve played the instrument a bit and I recognize the truth in this assertion because I, too, found myself playing Milt’s “licks” and “phrases.” They lay so easily on the axe. You drop you hands [mallets] on the bars and out they come.

Another reason why so many vibist sound like Bags may be because he played a lot of the same “licks” [musical expressions] or phrases over and over again.

A lot of Jazz musicians do this [some call them “resting points”], but one has to be careful with repetitive phrases because employing the same licks too often can become an excuse for not thinking [in other words, not being inventive].

The expression that is sometimes used when this happens is that the musician “mailed in” the solo.

Bags was one of the “Founding Fathers” of Bebop, he toured all over the United States and Europe with the MJQ and he made a slew of recordings with the group, with other artists as well as under his own name.

As a result, his style of vibes had a lot of exposure.

This exposure helped make Milt Jackson instantly recognizable as a major exponent of the bebop, blues-inflected style of playing Jazz vibes.

But for my money, no one has ever played the instrument more musically than Victor Feldman.


Bags’ influence is there in Victor’s style, but Victor is his own man and takes the instrument in a completely different direction than Milt.

There isn’t the repetitiveness nor for that matter the constant bebop and blues phrases, but rather, a more pianistic and imaginative approach, one that emphasizes longer inventions and a constant flow of new melodies superimposed over the chord changes.

Victor also emphasizes rhythm differently than the dotted eighth note spacing favored by Bags. As a result, Victor, begins and ends his phrases in a more angular fashion which creates more surprises in where he is going in his solos.

The starting points and pick-ups for Victors solos vary greatly because he is not just looking for places in the music to put tried-and-tested licks, he’s actually attempting to create musical ideas that he hasn’t expressed before.

Is what Victor is doing “better” than Bags? Of course not.  Is it different? Is it ever.

Fresh and adventurous. And exhilarating, too.

Jazz improvisation is the ultimate creative experience.

One doesn’t need any awards. You just can’t wait for the next time you solo so you can try soaring again.

To help give you the “flavor” of Victor Feldman’s marvelous creative powers as a Jazz vibist, we’ve stripped things down to their bare essentials with an audio-only track that I think features him at his imaginative best.

No more words; no photographs or moving images; just the music.


This track has him performing his original composition Too Blue with Rick Laird on bass and Ronnie Stephenson on drums from his triumphant 1965 return to Ronnie Scott’s Club in his hometown of London [Jazz Archives JACD-053].

It runs a little over 8 minutes. You can hear the statement of the 12-bar blues theme from 0.00-0.22 minutes and again from 0.23-0.45 minutes. Each 12-bar theme closes with a bass “tag.”

Victor and Rick hook-up for a call-and-response interlude between 0:46-1:10 minutes before Victor launches into his first improvised chorus at 1:11 minutes.

He improvises seven choruses from 1:11-4:14 minutes before bassist Rick Laird takes four choruses from 4:14-5:46 minutes.

None of Victor’s choruses contains a repeated phrase or a recognizable Milt Jackson lick [phrase].

When Victor comes-back-in [resumes playing] at 5:46 minutes following Rick’s bass solo, if you listen carefully you can hear him using two mallets in his left hand to play 4-beats-to-the-bar intervals while soloing against this with the two mallets held in his right-hand.

He even throws in the equivalent of a big band-like “shout” chorus while trading fills with drummer Ronnie Stephenson beginning at 6:56 minutes.

The closing statement of the theme can be heard at 7:19 minutes ending with an “Amen” at 8:06 minutes.

When listening to Victor Feldman play Jazz on the vibraphone, one is hearing a true innovator at work. For him, making the next improvised chorus as original and as musically satisfying as possible was always the ultimate goal. 

It’s a shame that Jazz fans are not more familiar with his work on vibes. Having heard it on a regular basis for over twenty-five years, I can attest to the fact that it was something special. The only thing that Victor Feldman ever mailed in was a letter.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Lambert Hendricks and Ross - "Airegin" [Sonny Rollins]

"The word "amazing" is wildly misused in contemporary conversation and writing, but it really does apply to this performance." - Jim Brown, Audio Engineer

The vocalese solos by Jon and Dave on this video will blow you away.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Eli “Lucky” Thompson

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Lucky Thompson was a vastly under-acclaimed tenor saxophonist.”
- Doug Ramsey

Eli “Lucky” Thompson was born on June 16, 1924 in Columbia, South Carolina, but grew up in Detroit. From a very young age, Lucky was obsessed by music and long before he owned a horn, he studied instruction books and practiced finger exercises on a broomstick marked with saxophone key patterns. When he acquired his first saxophone at the age of 25, he practiced eight hours a day and within a month he played professionally with neighborhood bands.”
- Joop Visser

“… it seems likely that the cross-pollination of ideas so promi­nent among bebop era saxophonists affected Lucky less than anyone. Stylistically he has always been his own man.”
- Bob Porter

"Like Don Byas, whom he most resembles in tone and in his development of solos, he has a slightly oblique and uneasy stance on bop, cleaving to a kind of accelerated swing idiom with a distinctive 'snap' to his softly enunciated phrases and an advanced harmonic language that occasionally moves into areas of surprising freedom."
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton,  Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“There is the history of the saxophone in Lucky Thompson’s music.”
- David Himmelstein

“Music is the most interesting thing in the world.”
- Lucky Thompson

“You know I lost my interest in music. I had to run from place to place at the mercy of people who manipulated me. I never rejected music; it constitutes a great part of my soul.”
- Lucky Thompson to Mike Hennessey in MusicItalia interview

“Thompson's disappearance from the jazz scene in the 1970's was only the latest (but apparently the last) of a strangely contoured career. A highly philosophical, almost mystical man, he reacted against the values of the music industry and in the end turned his back on it without seeming regret. The beginning was garlanded with promise.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton,  Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.


I lived and worked in Seattle, WA for a while.

Given the city’s notorious commuter traffic, fortunately for me, it was easy to access my office at the downtown corner of Fourth and Pike Streets as it was a clear shot into town on the Aurora Highway [Hwy 99] from my home in the Green Lake area of the city.

It was a point in my work-life that often found me toiling late at the office.

Because of the manner in which one-way streets configured downtown traffic, I often exited the city along Second Street which is also the home of Tula’s, a great Jazz club that primarily features the work of local Jazz artists.

One rainy night - now there’s a surprise in Seattle! - I had worked so late that I decided to catch a set at the club and treat myself to a dinner of its excellent dolmathes and souvlaki before going home.

Jay Thomas, who plays both superb trumpet and tenor saxophone, was Tula’s headliner.

Besides the great music and tasty Greek food, I also met up that night with a couple of Jazz buddies who lived in the nearby Belltown part of the city [a downtown waterfront neighborhood that overlooks a portion of Elliott Bay].

We shared a bottle of red plunk while thoroughly enjoying the music on offer by Jay’s quartet.

All of us still smoked during those days and, as a result of the club’s ban on partaking of lit nicotine within the walls of its premises, we found ourselves merrily chatting and puffing away outside the club’s entrance during the first intermission.

Thankfully the rain had abated, or a least scaled down to a soft drizzle. While the three of us were standing and smoking by the curbside, we were approached by a street person who asked if he could bum a smoke.

After we obliged him and he had continued on his way, one of my friends asked me if I’d recognized the damp denizen of the night?

I thought I was making a wisecrack when I answered that “… he looked vaguely familiar.” “He should,” remarked one of my friends: “That was Lucky Thompson!”

Obviously, my Belltown buddies had met him before, under similar circumstances.

All of us became very subdued after Lucky left.

Each quietly puffed their cigarette which gave us time to adjust to the sense of sadness that had come over us following the sight we had just witnessed.

Needless to say, the evening wasn’t the same after that; no more frivolity and jocularity, only a deep and abiding hurt.


When I returned home with that chance meeting still on my mind, it occurred to that while I had heard Lucky’s tenor saxophone sound with Count Basie’s band [my Dad had some V-Discs by the band with Lucky], on Miles Davis’ famous Walkin’ LP and as part of Stan Kenton’s sterling Cuban Fire album [his solo beginning at around the 4:00 minute mark of the opening track – Fuego Cubano - always touches my heart], most of his recorded music had passed-me-by.

For whatever reasons, I had missed much of Lucky’s discography when he was a force on the Jazz scene, primarily from 1945-1965.

The following day, I decided to put that omission right and I began seeking out Lucky’s recordings which, to my surprise were plentiful, and still readily available.

As is often the case with chance meetings, it was the beginning of a love affair as Lucky’s music was engaging, full of marvelous twists and turns, and alive with an almost effortless swing.

Although it is a later recording in the Thompson canon, one of my first purchases of Lucky’s music under his own name was Tricotism [Impulse/GRP GRD-135].

The insert notes to this CD are by Bob Porter and they contained the following overview and commentary of Thompson’s career which was very helpful to me as a guide for further purchases of Lucky’s music.

If you are like me and not a member of the Lucky cognoscenti, perhaps it can serve a similar purpose for you.

“The career of Eli Thompson (6/16/24), musician, is one of the most enigmatic in all jazz. It is an odyssey involving four cities, two instruments, big bands, small bands, popularity, poverty, stylistic changes, associations with major names, (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Stan Kenton), and long peri­ods of inactivity.

Detroit is his home town. A grad­uate of Cass Tech, Lucky was among a number of remarkably talented saxophonists who were active in the Motor City during the early '40s. Wardell Gray, Teddy Edwards, Yusef Lateef, and Sonny Stitt would lead the list and it seems likely that the cross-pollination of ideas so promi­nent among bebop era saxophonists affected Lucky less than anyone. Stylistically he has always been his own man.


Lucky entered the ranks of pro­fessional musicians when he left Detroit with the Treniers in 1943. An unhappy six months with Lionel Hampton followed, ending in New York. Shortly thereafter Lucky went into the brand new Billy Eckstine Band. The Eckstine association was brief, and Lucky first began to achieve prominence during his year with Count Basic. The war-time Basic band was a fine organization, and Lucky had considerable solo space. The V-Disc of "High Tide" is especially impressive.

Lucky left Basic in late 1945, set­tling in Los Angeles. One of his first gigs in L. A. was as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Rebop Six. Actually he was the odd man out in a group that featured Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown, Stan Levey, and the leader. Lucky was hired because of the erratic habits of the co-star, Charlie Parker. Yet that engagement acted as a springboard for Lucky.

During 1946 and '47 Lucky was the most requested tenorman in the L. A. area. He worked frequently with Boyd Raeburn, but he also made over 100 recordings as a sideman during those years. He had recorded for Excelsior and Down Beat and in 1947 he made four famous sides for RCA, including his masterpiece "Just One More Chance." He won the Esquire New Star award in 1947. In 1948 Lucky migrated across coun­try. New York would be his home for the next eight years.
Lucky worked frequently at the Savoy Ballroom during the early '50s, but the recording slows had set in.

A couple of obscure small label ses­sions were Lucky's only recordings from 1947 to late 1953, when he did a date for Decca. Two dates in 1954 under his own name presaged anoth­er masterpiece: his "Walkin"' solo with Miles Davis.

During the 1950s Lucky was a close associate of light-heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore. Moore liked to warm up and work out while Lucky and company pro­vided the music.

Lucky and Milt Jackson have been close associates since their days in Detroit. In 1956, just prior to the recording of the music heard on this CD, Jackson and Thompson record­ed five LPs together, under Milt's name for Savoy and Atlantic.
I suspect that it was no accident that the trio session here included no drummer. If there has been one aspect of Lucky's playing that has been criticized through the years it is his relationship with drummers. The hard swinging sessions of the 1940s and early '50s were giving way to an almost ascetic rhythmic approach. I also suspect that some critics, in writing about the Jimmy Giuffre Three, (which had the iden­tical instrumentation as Lucky's group), may have forgotten these per­formances, which predated Giuffre by 10 months.


Paris in the spring of 1956 was, for Lucky, a period of tremendous activ­ity. He recorded five LPs for various French labels. Also while in France, he sat in with Stan Ken ton. This led to Lucky's participation in one of the most famous Kenton LPs of the' 50s, Cuban Fire. Before returning to France for an extended stay, Lucky worked again with Oscar Pettiford and recorded with him.

Lucky was the first major jazzman since Sidney Bechet to adopt the soprano saxophone. He predated John Coltrane by at least 18 months; but Lucky has never been given any credit for ushering the return to popularity of the straight saxophone. In the mid-'60s Lucky returned to the U.S.A., recording for Prestige and Rivoli. He had been back and forth to Europe several times since and did several interesting LPs for Groove Merchant in the early '70s. He also taught at Dartmouth for a year[1973-74].

When Will Powers interviewed him for Different Drummer, Lucky was completing his academic work and thinking of a new city. This time it might be Toronto or Montreal. Always the drifter, ever the search.

It is not my opinion, but consen­sus, that says the music on these LPs is the finest extended playing that Lucky Thompson has produced on record. As noted earlier, the sessions came at a period where Lucky had been recording frequently. He and Pettiford were a mutual admiration society and the rapport, even inti­macy, they achieve in the trio tracks is nothing short of remarkable.

This is not to take anything away from the quintet sides where Jimmy Cleveland shines so brightly. The presence of Hank Jones reunites a close partnership dating to Detroit days. Yet it is Lucky, with the warmth, the inner feeling, the depth, the mastery that permeates every groove on these LPs.

That this music is able to appear again after years of neglect is cause for celebration. Let's hope that this release is able to shed new light on the talent of Lucky Thompson.”

—Bob Porter, Contributor—Radio Free Jazz1975 (original edited liner notes from Dancing Sunbeam, Imp ASH-9307-2)

A few years after this meeting, I learned that Lucky had passed away in Seattle in 2005.

With everything he had gone through, including apparently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease during the later years of his life, somehow he had luckily [?] managed to live to be 81-years of age.

Here’s a video tribute to Lucky that features him at his beautiful, breathy and majestic sounding best.

The tune is A Lady’s Vanity on which he is accompanied by Hank Jones on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Osie Johnson on drums. It’s from the Tricotism CD.

And if you are looking for a comprehensive discography of Lucky’s recordings, you can’t do better than the one that Noal Cohen has compiled. 


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bill Kirchner: Old Friends – New Music


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Bill Kirchner has been a friend to Jazz in many ways and for many years.

For not only is he a Jazz musician, composer, educator and writer, he is also the editor of the esteemed – The Oxford Companion to Jazz [2000] – one of the best compilations ever assembled of knowledgeable essayists writing on the subject of Jazz.

Bill has two, new recordings out and both are available for purchase as Mp3 downloads though www.jazzheads.com via the following links:

OLD FRIENDS
To purchase "Old Friends," click on this link:

ONE STARRY NIGHT
To purchase "One Starry Night," click on this link:

Bill has kindly granted us copyright permission to reproduce on these pages Larry Kart’s fine descriptions of the music on both of these recordings.

We have also embedded two Sound Cloud audio tracks into the feature so that you can listen to examples of the music on each of Bill’s new recordings.

© -  Larry Kart/Bill Kirchner, used with permission, copyright protected, all rights reserved.


“At one point Bill Kirchner played a good many of the reed and woodwind instruments with much skill -- sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto flute, and piccolo. But in recent years the soprano saxophone has become his instrument of choice and eventually also of near necessity, and it is on soprano that one will hear him solo on this duo concert that Bill and one of his favorite musical partners, pianist Marc Copland, gave on September 23, 2008, in New York City at The New School, where Bill also teaches.

The setting was a compact, wood-paneled, lecture hall-recital room (l was there), with fine acoustics (or it seemed to me) and a lovely piano for Copland to play. Full of friends, many of them musicians, the audience was attentive to say the least, and there was a great deal for us to pay attention to.

I said above that Bill’s focus on the soprano was a matter both of affinity and “near necessity” because of circumstances that he describes in the liner notes to his 1997 album “Some Enchanted Evening” (A-Records): “In 1993, it was discovered that I had a life-threatening spinal tumor. I underwent two operations to remove it, but as a result was left largely paralyzed on my right side. I learned to walk again, and have gradually regained most of the use of my right hand.... Happily, I have begun playing the soprano saxophone in public, thanks in part to the ingenious Perry
Ritter, who rebuilt my horn so that I can use alternative fingerings.”

That no allowances need be made for Bill’s latter-day soprano playing is obvious from this concert; these are among the most striking recorded improvisations on this tricky instrument, which in the modern era is too often played so as to be thin and piping in tone. There is, by contrast to this unfortunate norm, a top, middle, and bottom to Bill’s sound, and he can vary its breadth and volume for expressive purposes in virtually any register. Is his sheer facility, his ability to place a great many notes in tight places, quite the same as it once was? Probably not, though he always was a lyrical player, not a flashy one. In any case, as I believe I said to him
a few years ago, kidding on the square, “Now you get to play only the good notes.” Further, there are the words of his former teacher Lee Konitz when they were playing together not long ago: “You can always simplify." “One of the profoundest things any improvising musician has ever said, to my knowledge,” Bill adds.

If only, but not only, because of the duo format, Copland is quite prominent here. (The Copland-Kirchner partnership goes back to 1976, when both men were living and working in Washington, D.C. They both moved to New York in the early 1980s and have continued to work together frequently.)

Originally an alto saxophonist, talented enough to be hired by Chico Hamilton, Copland underwent a quite unusual conversion in his mid-20s, from altoist to pianist. As he told Gene Lees in an interview: “When I was coming up as a saxophonist, the ideal was to burn out -- to play really intense. All of a sudden here was this Impressionist-lyrical thing going on inside me that I had known nothing about.... It was so strong that it took me all the way over, not so much because I wanted to play piano -- although I grew to love it -- but because I had to do something with that feeling.”

What Copland has done with that feeling is to become a simply ravishing and quite individual jazz pianist -- technically, harmonically, in terms of both long-range “orchestral” thinking and quick-witted response. He’s in the line of Bill Evans, but speaking as someone who found Evans (and finds many of those he influenced) to be rather formulaic at times, the sheer freshness of Copland’s ideas, the unapologetic emotional openness of his

“Impressionist-lyrical thing” is a delight. Another thing, and far from a little
thing -- he really swings; does so, as does Kirchner here, even when the time feel is more or less rubato. I think, in addition to the usual sources, that this has a lot to do with Copland’s harmonic thinking -- “coloristic” though they may be, his choices there always have clean, lucid rhythmic implications (those bass lines!), and serve to guide the speed and “plane” with which the performance advances through time.

Because there are only two musicians involved, and their thinking is so clear, I won’t try to verbally mirror that much of what I think is happening during these seventy-seven-or-so minutes of music-making. But I do want to focus on some passages that seem to me to be at once representative and remarkable.

On the first piece, Bruno Martino’s “Estate,” note how fluid yet “right there” the time feel is; the virtual outburst of lyricism that comes from Copland at the 7:19 mark and then leaps back to life at 7:52; the delicacy of Bill’s thread-like oscillation between two adjacent notes at about 11:29, and his almost fierce power in the passage that follows.

“Autumn Leaves” is a piece, says Bill, “that Marc and I have played every few years for over thirty years; it's ‘our song.’ Funny story -- in 1981, we did a duo concert at one of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. [The late jazz critic] Martin Williams was in the audience, and afterwards he complimented us on our arrangement of ‘Autumn Leaves.’ I thanked him while resisting the temptation to ask, ‘What arrangement?’ We were just playing the tune.”

Well, yes, literally, but also no. An arrangement for saxophone and piano that lasts for more than fourteen minutes and hangs together as this performance does would be difficult to envision. For instance, check out what happens at the 10:24 mark, as Bill enters after Copland’s solo. Holding a single note (a concert G-flat) for what seems an eternity while Copland dances above and below him, highlighting the way that held note alternately clashes and blends with the harmonic framework of the song, this to me is Bill in excelsis, a sterling example of Konitz’s dictum: “You can
always simplify.”

Speaking of Williams, in his book “Where’s the Melody?” he famously answered that common-at-one-time question with something like, good jazz improvisers tend to make up melodies that are better than those of the songs they started out from. And better, longer melodies, too. Unless I’m imagining things, on “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” the improvised melodic line that Bill begins at about the 2:56 mark remains essentially unbroken until 4:31 rolls around -- and that, believe me, is a long time to sustain a meaningful melodic arc at this ballad tempo. And don’t miss the child-like
Ravelian quality of the coda that Bill and Marc devise.

Miles Davis’ “Agitation” is the most overtly swinging performance here – a virtual surf ride -- while the misterioso reading of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” is a particularly fine example of Copland’s aforementioned way of turning harmonic choices into rhythmic ones. And Johnny Mandel's "Keester Parade" is here approached by both players with a delicious, droll slyness--quite unlike the mini-big band fervor, topped off by a hellacious shout chorus, of bass trumpeter Cy Touff's original 1955 octet recording. (I should mention that “Keester Parade” is not Mandel’s only venture into verbal trickery; he also gave us “London Derriere.”)

My favorite performance of this evening, though, if I had to chose one, would be the duo’s version of Victor Young and Ned Washington’s “My Foolish Heart” -- a song that I believe Bill Evans introduced to the jazz repertoire, and bless him for that. From the tender hesitation that Bill introduces into the opening melodic line to the final near unison pianosoprano restatement of the theme, this is, indeed, music of the heart.


Larry Kart, author of “Jazz In Search of Itself” (Yale University Press)

BILL KIRCHNER, soprano saxophone
MARC COPLAND, piano

1) Estate (Bruno Martino/Bruno Brighetti) 13:45
Universal Music Publishing Ricordi SRL, ASCAP
2) Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma/Jacques Prévert/Johnny Mercer) 14:33
Morley Music, ASCAP
3) I Fall In Love Too Easily (Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn) 11:09
EMI Feist Catalog Inc./Music Publishing Co. of America, ASCAP
4) Footprints (Wayne Shorter) 11:19
Miyako Music, BMI
5) My Foolish Heart (Victor Young/Ned Washington) 11:40
Anne Rachel Music Corp./Catharine Hinen/Patti Washington Music, ASCAP
6) Keester Parade (Johnny Mandel) 8:00
Marissa Music, ASCAP
7) Agitation (Miles Davis) 6:16

East St. Louis Music Inc./Jazz Horn Music Corp., BMI
Recorded at The New School Jazz Performance Space,
New York City, September 23, 2008.
Recording Engineer: Christopher Hoffman
Mastering Engineer: Malcolm Addey
Cover Photo: Ed Berger
Graphic Design; Javier Chacin and Judy Kahn




“Something that should become quite apparent as one listens to these performances is the sheer, securely grounded intelligence of Bill Kirchner’s musical thought, his learned though utterly natural and relaxed craftsmanship. Taught directly by such celebrated arrangers as Rayburn Wright and Mike Crotty (who arranged “I Concentrate On You” for the Nonet) and by example and assimilation by such figures as Thad Jones and Bob Brookmeyer (Bill was a frequent sub with Mel Lewis and the Jazz Orchestra at one time), Ellington, Strayhorn, Gil Evans, Eddie Sauter, Gary McFarland, and Mike Abene, Bill simply (or not so simply) knows a great deal about voicing, instrumental colors and blends, linear logic, long-range form, contrapuntal possibilities, you name it. And he knows these things not only in take-it-apart-and put-it-back-together analytic terms but also in the collective, on-the-stand, “let’s get it done” sense that brings jazz, one of the quintessential performance arts, to life.

Consider, for example, the rather bright tempo chosen for the first piece of the Chicago concert, Sergio Mendes’ “So Many Stars.” Right for the tune itself, it’s also perfect for the first tune of a set. Pushed close to the limit, bass trombonist Douglas Purviance’s solo is truly inspired, as is that of pianist Marc Copland (Cohen at that time); and the from-the-first-note briskness of the performance “sells” the band as a whole immediately, which is of the essence when one is leading a non-big-name ensemble and facing an audience of 60,000.

“The chart,” Bill adds, “is in a quasi-rondo form, and alternates between a vamp and the song form with chord changes. Douglas solos on the vamp, Marc on the changes.”


Also, don’t miss the purity of tone and agility of Bill’s piccolo work in the ensemble toward the beginning of “So Many Stars,” with the flutes of Ralph Lalama and Glenn Wilson. It’s one of those details that distinguishes his arranging, exquisite in concept and execution but always in service of the piece’s storytelling flow.

Bill’s chart on Andy LaVerne’s aptly titled “Maximum Density” is another gem. Dig Copland’s coat-of-many-colors comping behind Lalama’s probing, serpentine solo, Ron Vincent’s intensely propulsive yet transparent drumming, and the way the ensemble at first steals in toward the end of Lalama’s stint and then briefly, kaleidoscopically erupts -- as J.R. Taylor once said of another Kirchner arrangement, “The band seems to swell to twice its actual size.”

Years ago, I mentioned to Bill how much I liked Lalama’s solo on “Brother Brown,” one of the tracks from the Nonet’s 1982 album “What It Is To Be Frank” (Sea Breeze). Agreeing that it was exceptional even by Lalama’s high standards, Bill said something like, “Yes, I set it [the chart] up so Ralph would play that way.” The tone with which this was said is tricky to convey, but in addition to some wry pardonable pride, it basically was an expression of the genuine pleasure Bill took in having showcased so effectively a fellow musician he deeply admired. The bandleader’s genetic makeup at work. And another little, or not so little, point about band-leading: Bill gives his soloists just the right amount of solo room -- when they do play, they get to play.

To Sheila Jordan’s portion of the program. Still quite active today, almost 25 years further on, Jordan was in particularly exuberant form on this night -- stimulated by the size and enthusiasm of the audience (she works it like a show-biz master) and of course by the sounds of the Nonet behind her. Judd Woldin and Robert Brittan’s “Whose Little Angry Man Are You?” from the musical “Raisin” (based on the late Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun”) is a seldom-heard song that Jordan has made her own – dig her flowing, saxophone-like phrasing and her unique scat-singing style, which seems akin to the sound of Native American vocal chants, as though there were tuned drums in her chest and throat. Some of Jordan's ancestors, in fact, were members of the Cherokee Nation.

Next is “Quasimodo,” Jordan’s expansive ode to her idol Charlie Parker, with an initial glimpse of Parker’s version of “Embraceable You,” the song on which his “Quasimodo” is based. There’s a remarkable, whip-like snap to Jordan’s phrasing here, and Bill Warfield’s cup-muted trumpet solo is drenched in the bebop ethos. Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate On You” is a song that Jordan was born to sing, and it features a brilliant trumpet solo by Brian Lynch. Kirchner emphasizes how important it was for the band to get the rhythmic feel of this Mike Crotty chart just right for Sheila. “If it wasn’t ‘in the pocket,’ it wouldn’t have worked for her.”

We finish with another Porter song, “You’d Be So Nice to Come To,” which begins with Jordan's Native American-like scatting -- here almost shocking in its emotional immediacy, with bassist Mike Richmond virtually singing alongside her. Then comes a pleading, preaching solo from baritone saxophonist Glenn Wilson, propelled by Vincent’s cooking drums; more of Jordan’s scat-singing (hers is essentially vocal invention, I think, not an attempt to imitate an instrumentalist); and finally a glimpse of the leader’s soprano saxophone, entwined with Jordan’s voice, the only solo spot that Bill affords himself. A magical night -- I was there.”

Larry Kart, author of “Jazz In Search of Itself” (Yale University Press)

BILL KIRCHNER, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, flute, clarinet, piccolo
RALPH LALAMA, tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet
GLENN WILSON, baritone saxophone, flute
BILL WARFIELD, trumpet, flugelhorn
BRIAN LYNCH, trumpet, flugelhorn
DOUGLAS PURVIANCE, bass trombone
MARC COPLAND, piano
MIKE RICHMOND, bass
RON VINCENT, drums
SHEILA JORDAN, vocals

1) Opening Announcements 0:44
2) So Many Stars (Sergio Mendes/Alan & Marilyn Bergman) 7:41
Spirit Two Music Inc./Threesome Music Co./W B Music Corp., ASCAP
3) Maximum Density (Andy LaVerne) 6:23
Kranmars Music, ASCAP
4) Whose Little Angry Man (Judd Woldin/Robert Brittan) 5:47
EMI Blackwood Music, Inc., BMI
5) Quasimodo (Charlie Parker/Sheila Jordan) 10:34
Songs Of Universal Inc., BMI
6) I Concentrate On You (Cole Porter) 8:11
Chappell-Co. Inc., ASCAP
7) You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To (Cole Porter) 12:23
Chappell-Co. Inc., ASCAP
8) Band Credits 0:19

So Many Stars and Maximum Density arranged by Bill Kirchner.
Whose Little Angry Man, Quasimodo, and You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To
arranged by Bill Kirchner and Sheila Jordan.
I Concentrate On You arranged by Mike Crotty.
Recorded at the Chicago Jazz Festival,
Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, September 4, 1987.
Mastering Engineer: Malcolm Addey
Graphic Design; Javier Chacin and Judy Kahn