Sunday, September 30, 2012

Alan and Art … Barnes and Pepper, That Is

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

'You know, there's honest musicians and there's dishonest musicians. Let me clarify that. An honest musician plays with his heart and soul and gives his all, all the time. And then there's the dishonest musician who plays, and gives you his all, but not all the time. It's like a racehorse. When Art plays, it's all, all the time. I never heard him lay back at any time, and that, to me, is an honest musician. And there aren't too many of them in the entire world.’
- Marty Paich, composer-arranger

Life does indeed move in mysterious fashions?

Are there no such things as coincidences; is the world really operating as chaos theory; are there parallel universes that we can side-step into if we only knew how to do it?

Maybe Rod Sterling was right and the whole thing is a “Twilight Zone?”

One day I’m remarking to a friend over coffee how I can’t relate to the late, alto saxophonist Art Pepper’s music from the closing years of his career. To my ears, Art’s music moved from being smooth, passionate and melodic to one that was abrasive  and harsh – it became a cacophony of sounds; no longer music.

Soon thereafter, I’m having coffee with another friend who is into Jazz and he gives me alto saxophonist Alan Barnes’ latest CD, The Art Trip: The Music of Art Pepper [Woodville Records WVCD 137].

How zany is that?

The first friend urged me to stick with repeated listening of Pepper’s later recordings in order to “get them,” neither of which I’m able to do.

But thanks to the other friend’s generosity, I am now able to take solace in the fact that I am not alone in confronting the quandary posed by Art’s music, then-and-now, so to speak.

Alan Barnes discusses this dilemma in his insert notes to The Art Trip: The Music of Art Pepper.

© -Alan Barnes/Woodville Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Art Pepper first came into my life when I was around 15, through a double album entitled Art Pepper - Discoveries, recorded in the early '50s. I'd never heard of him. It had a painting of a good looking young man with an alto saxophone on the cover and lots of the titles were named after herbs and spices - Art's Oregano, Thyme Time, Cinnamon, Nutmeg - it seemed strange and exotic: I thought at the time, perhaps it was something to do with his being called Pepper

The alto sax playing sprang out of those LPs. It was so clear, virtuosic and accurate - a beautiful, fresh, full-of-life sound that danced over the time in a light and subtle, yet intensely probing way. There was a lonely, yearning quality to his playing on the ballads that really reached out to the listener. Perhaps the most beautiful moments came when Jack Montrose joined the ensemble on tenor and the two front men wove lines around each other. It was just so musical and respectful, each playing so much like themselves but with great politeness and courtesy to the other. I'd heard many of the world's greatest saxophonists on records, and still loved them, but from that moment one this was clear for me, that was how the alto saxophone should be played.

A handful of years later I saw Art Pepper at Ronnie Scott's club, playing with his quartet with Milcho Leviev on piano. The first shock was the different sound of the saxophone. It was darker and thicker in tone with a new emotional depth to it. His lines were sometimes shorter, broken and angular - he would find a set of notes and realy worry them, then break free into long darting phrases that ran effortlessly through the changes. The beautiful clarity, tuning and stunning double timing were still there, but when the music reached a certain, almost frightening, emotional intensity and there seemed nowhere else to go, he would move right out there - playing free, spitting out distorted notes with furious passion. The ballads were raw and tender. I've never seen anyone more involved or determined and it showed what's possible in a jazz performance. He looked like a man fighting for survival. It was riveting, overwhelming, honest, disturbing and quite profound.

These two different periods of the same musician's life were separated by years of drug and alcohol addiction and lengthy stays in prisons and a drug rehabilitation centre. However harrowing these experiences, however long he was off the scene, Art always played superbly well in a series of come-backs throughout his life. His final re-emergence, beginning in 1977, really gathered momentum, producing some of the finest playing of his career and gaining him the worldwide recognition that he had always sought. He continued to perform until he was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and died in June of 1982.

Art's career stretched from the late '40s with the bands of Stan Kenton and Benny Carter, through recognition as a 'West Coast Star’ in the '50s and on to triumphs of his later years.

Unlike many West Coast jazz musicians, he wasn't a studio player by day - he always remained resolutely a jazz performer. His life is detailed in his devastatingly honest biography, Straight Life, published in 1977.

This CD is the idea of bassist Al Swainger. As well as playing great bass on this session, he put together the band, booked the studios, picked the tunes and transcribed all the music. In deciding winch material to focus on, Al chose a selection of Art's compositions from both the early and later periods and balanced them with several standards that really showcase the individuality of the man. Making free use of transcriptions, recordings and the individual personalities of the assembled players we hope to have achieved a balance between the old and the new to create something unique for a fresh generation of listeners. It's not an attempt to sound like Art (who could?), just the four of us enjoying the playing his great music and enjoying being influenced by his great musicianship. Craig Milverton on piano has always been a very fine accompanist and trio pianist. He really shines on this recording and plays some of his finest work to date. Nick Millward on drums really worked at getting an individual feel on each track, finding his own way. I think his playing and approach really makes this album.

Art's compositions should be part of any jazz study syllabus, the up-tempo numbers are very witty, articulate and hip, often based on the chord sequences of standards. His ballads are always beautiful vehicles for expression while his Latin and groove tunes are timeless and very much bring to mind his home city of Los Angeles. He really excelled at playing on simple harmonic vamps, sometimes extending the ends of tunes to incorporate one of these and really get into some blowing after the tune was over. Mambo Koyama and the 5/4 Las Cuevos De Mark), for instance, were refreshingly different for us to play on after lots of involved, harmonic pieces.

Personally, it's been a real pleasure to continue studying and playing the music of Art Pepper. Marty Paich, Art's friend and collaborator on many albums, seemed to sum up the essence of the man: 'You know, there's honest musicians and there's dishonest musicians. Let me clarify that. An honest musician plays with his heart and soul and gives his all, all the time. And then there's the dishonest musician who plays, and gives you his all, but not all the time. It's like a racehorse. When Art plays, it's all, all the time. I never heard him lay back at any time, and that, to me, is an honest musician. And there aren't too many of them in the entire world"

- Alan Barnes • September 2011

Here’s an audio-only track from the CD with Alan and the group performing one of Art’s tunes from earlier in his career entitled Chili Pepper which is based on the chord changes to Tea for Two.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Total Toots

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

Sometimes we like to re-visit the music of artists about whom we have developed video tributes to in association with the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD.

Recently, we have developed a new affiliation with StudioCerra Productions that we hope will enable us to add additional visual and audio dimensions to these efforts.

In order to welcome StudioCerra Production to these pages, we thought it might be enjoyable to reprise the four video tributes that we have developed which feature the music of Toots Thielemans.

Jazz is supposed to be about fun and no one brings more joy to the music than Toots.

[Click on the “X” to close out of the ads when they appear on the Soldier in the Rain video].

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Origins of Gene Lees’ The JazzLetter – The First Jazz Blog?

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

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles subscribed to The JazzLetter for many years.

Its author, Gene Lees, who died in April, 2010 at the age of eighty-two, published The JazzLetter in monthly editions of 6-8 manuscript-sized, printed pages and mailed them to his subscribers.

Gene would often get behind in his efforts to put it out on a monthly basis and a clump of them would sometimes arrive in one envelope.

Who cared. Whenever one or more copies of The JazzLetter hit my mailbox, it marked a joyous occasion as I was about to be transported into some aspect of the world of Jazz and its makers by Gene Lees, whom Glen Woodcock of the Toronto Sun once labeled: “… the best writer on Jazz in the world today.”

Although, Tim Berners-Lee devised the first web browser and server at CERN and launched the World Wide Web in August, 1991, about ten years after Gene began publishing The JazzLetter in 1981, the publication never made an appearance on the world-wide-web.

Irrespective of the fact that The JazzLetter never went digital, I have always thought of it as the first Jazz blog.

Perhaps after you read this account from Gene’s introduction to his Cats of Any Color compilation on the origins of The JazzLetter you, too, might agree that the publication deserves to be considered in this fashion.

Also, when you read Gene’s account of how it all began, you may get a sense of nostalgia at the thought that such a time will never come again.

© -  Gene Lees/Da Capo Press, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Often it will be found that someone speaks a third language with the ac­cent of the second. My Spanish, for example, has a French accent. Gene Kelly spoke French with a slight Italian accent. He grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia.

Over the years, I have also observed that anyone who has had two profes­sions practices the second with the disciplines and outlook of the first. You can see this in movie-makers. Directors who were first actors elicit fine work from their performers—for example, Richard Attenborough. Consider the miraculous performance he got from Robert Downey, Jr. as the English Charles Chaplin. Or the performances Robert Redford gets from actors, as in Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It. Or Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, both of whom had been actors, in any number of pictures.

Alfred Hitchcock, who early manifested a skill in things mechanical, went to work for a telegraph company, then broke into the film industry as a tide-card illustrator. His pictures were always visual, mechanical, and short on great acting, no matter the idolatry toward his pictures fashionable in film circles. He was quoted as saying that actors should be treated like cattle, and his movies look like filmed storyboards. David Lean began as a film editor, and though his films—The Bridge on the River Kwai - for example— reflect prodigious gifts for working with actors, they also reveal his first training in that they are magnificently, meticulously photographed and edited.

I was trained as an artist, but my first profession was journalism. I had been a newspaper reporter, editor, and foreign correspondent for ten years before I became the editor of Down Beat in April, 1959, and a thirst for factuality would stay with me. I looked the magazine over and sent a memo to staff members and contributors saying that its first duty was to be a good magazine, literate and readable. If it did not fulfill that obligation, it could not serve its subject matter well. I also urged a concern for factuality, in contrast to the opinion-mongering that comprised much, even most, of jazz criticism, and still does. To say something is exciting or boring or touching or disturbing is only to confess what excites, bores, touches, or disturbs you. It is not a fact about the work of art in question, it is a fact about the critic, a projection of his or her own character and experience.

I did what everyone did at Down Beat: I wrote record reviews. Project­ing your opinions in print is the fastest way in the world to alienate the vic­tims of your inescapable subjectivity. In any case, unless you are like Addison DeWitt in All About Eve and enjoy causing pain, writing criticism ain't your thing. So I fired myself as a record reviewer soon after joining the magazine. I have written very, very little jazz criticism, which is why I was in early years discomfited to see myself referred to as a jazz critic, later em­barrassed, and finally resigned to it.

My education in jazz came not from magazines and books but from studies of composition, piano (with Tony Aless, among others), and gui­tar—and from long, rich conversations in such places as Jim and Andy's bar in New York with Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Ben Webster, Cole-man Hawkins, Hank d'Amico, Will Bradley, Jimmy McPartland, Lockjaw Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, and many more. I found that jazz history, as it was generally accepted, was to a large extent a fiction that has been agreed upon, as Voltaire said of all history. It dawned on me that, since such founding figures as Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines were still with us, I had met nearly all the great jazz musicians who had ever lived, and knew some of them, such as Bill Evans and Woody Herman, intimately. At the same time, because of my activities as a lyricist, I met and in some cases came to know many of the major song­writers who had inspired and influenced me, including Howard Dietz, Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen, Johnny Green, Hoagie Carmichael, Mitchell Parrish, Harry Warren, and particularly Johnny Mercer, some­one else who became a close friend.

After leaving Down Beat toward the end of 1961, I settled in New York and devoted myself primarily to songwriting. I spent the early 1970s in Toronto, then settled in 1974 in Southern California, where I have re­mained ever since, the climate being one of its blandishments. By the end of the 1970s, my songs had been recorded by Mabel Mercer, Frank Sina­tra, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan (my dear, dear friend!), Ella Fitzgerald,Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee (another dear friend), and so many others that my royalties, at least in theory, made it possible for me to retire, and I tried. I soon found that I missed my friends, among them all the jazz musicians I had come to know since 1959.

On a morning in May, 1981, I sent a questionnaire to several hundred persons, asking whether I should start a letter—not a newsletter, giving record reviews, nightclub listings, and current news, but a letter on matters of interest to all of us. I specified that it would contain no advertising. Within a week, I had a mailbox full of letters urging me to do it, some of them containing checks. I realized that I was committed. Broadcaster Fred Hall and composer-pianist-arranger Roger Kellaway gave the Jazzletter its name. I still remember the list of early subscribers. It included Phil Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Shelly Manne, Benny Carter, Jimmy Rowles, John Lewis, Art Farmer, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Drew, Sahib Shihab, Rob McConnell, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mandel, Julius La Rosa, Jackie and Roy Kral, Robert Farnon, and Audrey Morris, such record-company executives as Charles Lourie, Bruce Lundvall, and Ken Clancy, and a number of critics and jazz historians, including Whitney Balliett, Doug Ramsey, Grover Sales, James Lincoln Collier, Philip Elwood, and the late Leonard Feather, as well as academics.

The Jazzletter addressed a list of subscribers almost all of whom I knew personally. It was written for musicians, dealing with matters that concern musicians—jazz musicians to a large extent but not exclusively. I did not de­sign it to exclude laymen, and indeed whenever technical discussions proved necessary, tried to make them as clear and brief as possible. But in general, the publication assumed a measure of knowledge in its readers. I asked gui­tarist and composer Mundell Lowe what he thought the limits of Jazzletter subject matter should be. He said, "Anything that is of interest to us"

And what was of acute interest to jazz musicians was the history of the music and its makers, whether one of the older players and the era he or she had lived through, or younger ones, anxious to know about the times they did not know. And given that I faced no limits in length, I was able to write extended pieces that simply would not be practical in most mag­azines for structural reasons. I soon found that I was recording the life stories, derived from extended interviews, of musicians who might de­serve book-length biographies but were unlikely to get them, the nature of publishing being what it is. I found myself writing what I came to think of as mini-biographies.

In time, Oxford University Press published four anthologies of these essays, each of them gathered loosely around a central theme. Cats of Any Color was the fourth of these collections. Cassell has published a fifth, Arranging the Score, Yale University Press is publishing a sixth, and a sev­enth is pending. I know of no other publication that has produced a comparable quantity of anthologized material. Two of the books received the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.”

Thanks to the collective efforts of many Jazz bloggers, the spirit of The Jazzletter lives on today in a variety of digital formats.

But for those of us who looked forward to that thud hitting the front door mat announcing that Gene had sent out another batch of his inimitable Jazzletter essays, musings and commentaries, there will never be anything quite like it again.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Pops – Dave and Iola Brubeck – The Real Ambassadors

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

“… in 1961, when Dave and his wife lola wrote The Real Ambassadors, which featured Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross as well as the quartet, ‘lola wanted Carmen, and we were very flattered when she agreed to do it, because she chose her material very carefully,’ Brubeck said of the singer who recorded a subsequent album with the quartet.

‘But Louis' road manager wouldn't give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis' hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered “Hi, Louis” when the door opened. Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the sessions, he was the first one in the studio and the last guy to leave.’”
- Dave Brubeck

“Why was Pops’ performance in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors such a moving and meaningful experience for him? Does this project have a special significance in Pops’ life beyond the music itself?”

“I think it does.  First, there was the challenge of learning an entire score of new material, something he really had never done before.  Even on Verve albums with Ella such as “Porgy and Bess,” I’m sure he was at least familiar with some of those great songs.  But the Brubeck’s wrote all these new songs with Louis in mind and Louis rose to the challenge by nailing it.  Also, there was the subject matter, songs about race, politics, religious, etc.  This was deep stuff and Louis responded with more seriousness and sensitivity than even Brubeck imagined bringing tears to those who heard Louis in the studio or those who witnessed the only live performance of The Real Ambassadors at Monterey in 1962.  I really think he considered it one of the highlights of his life (he dubbed it many, many times on his private tapes, right up to the end of this life) and proudly told reporters that Brubeck had written him ‘an opera.’”
-response to JazzProfiles interview question by author Ricky Riccardi, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years

I got so caught up in listening to the music on The Real Ambassadors [Columbia CK 57663], that I delayed writing this piece for days. Hearing the CD again after all these years just left me spellbound, and, at times, listening to Pops really tugged at my heartstrings.

The artistry on the recording is resplendent to such a degree that it becomes all-absorbing.

And, the music is in places very reminiscent as nine of the twenty songs that make up The Real Ambassadors were previously recorded by Dave’s quartets under the same, or, different titles. Dave and Iola later added lyrics and incorporated them into the larger framework of their Jazz opera [the libretto is there but the theatrical setting is missing].

So listening to The Real Ambassadors sends you off to the record collection searching for when you first heard these tunes by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. [Just to prove, of course, that either you’ve still got it, or you’re not losing it – depending on your point-of-view.]

For example: I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me, a feature for Carmen McRae with Pops harmonizing the ending, was originally Curtain Time from the quartet’s Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. about which Dave wrote:

Curtain Time is like a pencil sketch of Broadway, a mere suggestion of what the full-color painting should be with strings, brass and the full complement of a theatre orchestra. All we have here of the real pit band is the soft tinkle of the triangle in the opening bars. The rest of the or­chestration is for you to paint as the four of us try to conjure some of the excite­ment and glamour of a Broadway musical at curtain time.”

The piece retains its lightness and gentleness when Carmen performs it as I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me and having Pops do the harmony at the end is so unexpectedly perfect – a moment in time.

Carmen also is the primary vocalist on In the Lurch, which adds lyrics to Dave’s Two-Part Contention, previously performed on Brubeck Plays Brubeck [Columbia CK-65722] solo piano album and is also a featured piece by the quartet on their recording from the group’s 1956 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival [Columbia CL 932; SRCS 9522].

Mercifully for Carmen, the structure of In the Lurch is revised a bit from this description by Dave of the more complicated original:

"Two-Part Contention is divided into three sections, marked by three tempo changes. The first is a medium tempo; the second, slow; and the last, a fast tempo. The written portion of this tune is heard in the opening 32 bars. These two melodic lines are repeated throughout the piece. In the second section (slow tempo) I introduced a pattern of answering the right hand with the left hand, abruptly changing the register of the piano. In the third (fast) section, I tried to improvise within the limitation of two lines in the first chorus.”

Everybody’s Comin’, the tongue-twisting, jaw-cracking opening track is based on Everybody’s Jumpin’ from the Time Out album [Columbia CK-65122] with the 6/4 time signature of the original replaced by a straight 4/4 call and response between Pops and the LHR that serves to summon the faithful to the celebration.

To my ears, one of the great surprises on The Real Ambassadors is Pops’ performance on Nomad. The original version of the tune is contained on Jazz Impressions of Eurasia [Columbia CK 48351] and features a sultry, very Middle Eastern sounding alto saxophone played by the late Paul Desmond over Joe Morello’s use of tympani mallets on tom toms.

As described by Dave, the effect he was trying to achieve in Nomad was “the intricacies of Eastern rhythms … suggested by … superimposing three against the typical Jazz four.”

This Nomad is taken at a slower tempo to give Pops a chance to enunciate its clever lyrics. Clarinet replaces the alto and Joe’s tom toms are subdued while the beat is carried on a tambourine. Pops sings the first and third choruses and then takes an instantly recognizable Satchmo trumpet solo on the middle chorus which switches to straight 4/4 time.

Yet, despite these changes, The Real Ambassadors’ Nomad still evokes Dave’s intent when he originally wrote the piece: “I tried to capture the feeling of the lonely wanderer. The steady rhythm is like the ever-plodding gait of the camel, and the quicker beats are like the nomadic drums or the clapping of hands.”

It’s a credit to Pops’ genius that he could take music that is so recognizably Brubeckian and make it his own without changing the inner spirit of the piece.

Other previously recorded tunes that were converted by Dave and Iola for use in The Real Ambassadors include My One Bad Habit [My One Bad Habit is Falling In Love from The Dave Brubeck Quartet in Europe]; You Swing, Baby [The Duke from Jazz Red Hot & Cool, Brubeck Plays Brubeck and The Dave Brubeck Quartet at the Newport Jazz Festival]; Swing Bells [Brubeck Plays Brubeck], One Moment Worth Years [Brubeck Plays Brubeck]; Summer Song [Time Signatures].

The music on The Real Ambassadors was performed once – in September, 1962 at the Monterey Jazz Festival – which would make this year’s MJF bash at the Fairgrounds in Monterey, CA the 50th anniversary of that momentous event.

The 20 tracks that comprise this “musical production by Dave and Iola Brubeck” [5 of them previously unreleased] were recorded exactly one year earlier in September 1961 at Columbia’s 30th Street Studios in NYC.

Can you imagine – Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, Carmen McRae, Lambert Hendricks and Ross and a rhythm section made up of Dave Brubeck on piano, Gene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums – all gathered together in a recording studio?

Talk about a fantasy come true!

For various reasons, The Real Ambassadors almost didn’t happen and, given the circumstances under which it eventuated, it is a miracle that it came off so well.

We wanted to do justice to a feature on The Real Ambassadors so we asked Ricky Riccardi, author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years [New York: Pantheon, 2011] for permission to use the following excerpts on the evolution of the concept behind its recording and performance.

It is the most detailed description about the event that the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has been able to reference.

You can locate order information for Ricky’s What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years by going here.

© -  Ricky Riccardi/Pantheon Books, copyright protected; all rights reserved. Used with permission.

“In September, the All Stars settled in New York to make one of the most challenging records of Armstrong's career. Pianist-composer Dave Brubeck and his wife, lola, had collaborated on a musical project titled The Real Ambassadors, which was informed by social protest suggesting that jazz musicians would make better politicians than those then in charge. It touched on many issues of the day, especially race, and the Brubeck’s had conceived of the project with Armstrong in mind after his incendiary Lit­tle Rock comments. "I think that's what we really tried to overcome when we wrote The Real Ambassadors," lola Brubeck remembered, "because before we got into this project we didn't really know Louis that well, but we sensed in him a depth and an unstated feeling we thought we could tap into without being patronizing, and I think that's why he took to it."

While they intended eventually to stage a play, the Brubeck’s wanted to record the score first. Singer Carmen McRae and the vocalese group Lam­bert, Hendricks and Ross agreed to participate, but Armstrong proved difficult to get hold of, as Dave Brubeck related. "Louis's road manager wouldn't give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis's hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered, 'Hi, Louis' when the door opened . . . Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the session, he was the first one in the studio and last guy to leave."

Brubeck's demo tapes of the material are at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. Listening to them today, one hears a very polite Bru­beck explaining the nature of the project and what Armstrong means to it. It is possible, that Brubeck gave Armstrong the demo tapes of the songs in the summer of 1961 before an All Stars' four-day tour of Germany, for Brubeck is heard saying, "I've just talked to Joe Glaser and he's told me how difficult it will be for you to record any of these things before going to Europe. But I'm hoping you can figure out the backgrounds with my group playing and me singing the songs like you asked me to do."

To his meeting in Chicago, Brubeck had brought along the lyrics to a song called "Lonesome." Without knowing the melody, Armstrong gave an impassioned reading that greatly affected Brubeck. "Now I told my wife about the way you read the song 'Lonesome' in Chicago," Brubeck says in the tape. "You didn't sing it, you just read it, and it was such a mov­ing job that I thought maybe you would be able to read this on tape and send that back to us because this wouldn't involve you singing or trying to match your voice with the backgrounds that I've sent you by my combo." Brubeck went on to tell Armstrong about lola's regard for him: "She's always considered you the greatest ambassador we've ever had." lola herself then tells the trumpeter: "I saw you tonight on [the television program] You Asked for It and I was very, very impressed with your performance on the show. It thrilled me particularly because I heard you deliver some lines in a way that I knew it was possible for you to do some of the scenes in the show I had written for you. Now, I had the feeling all along that you could do them, but I had never heard you do anything like that before, and when I saw you tonight and saw the sincerity with which [you spoke] some various lines, it impressed me terrifically." The rest of the tape fea­tures Brubeck and his trio playing the show's originals with Brubeck sing­ing the melodies ("I'm ashamed of the horrible way in which I sing," he tells Armstrong at one point).

Armstrong practiced the Brubecks’ material whenever he had the rare luxury of free time. "Louis told everybody that we had written him an opera," Brubeck remembered. The only problem was finding someone who wanted to record it. "All of the producers I took it to, thought it was great, but they'd give me all these excuses . . . You weren't supposed to have a message. I forget the word they used, but it meant you weren't entertaining. We couldn't lecture the American public on the subject of race."

Eventually, Brubeck's own label, Columbia, agreed to take on the project, which was completed over the course of three sessions in Sep­tember 1961. The first song recorded was "They Say I Look Like God," a mournful piece that pitted Armstrong's blues-infused singing against Gregorian-chant-like lines delivered by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The Brubeck’s intended the song as satire, with Armstrong wondering if God could be black. "If both are made in the image of thee," he sings, "Could thou perchance a zebra be?" Expecting Armstrong to deliver the line with his usual jocularity, they were shocked and moved by Armstrong's chilling seriousness. Armstrong had tears in his eyes when he got to the song's final line, "When God tells man he's really free"; he repeated "really free" with haunting sincerity. "Goose pimple, I got goose pimple on this one," Louis said after recording it.  For me, this is arguably the most emotionally wrenching recording of Armstrong's career—a performance that dispels any notion of Armstrong as merely a clown in his later years.

Not every song on The Real Ambassadors is quite so serious; some, such as the romping "King for a Day," are full of good humor. The first session ended with the title tune, "The Real Ambassadors," on which Armstrong sang autobiographical lyrics:

I'll explain, and make it plain, I represent the human race And don’t pretend no more.

The next day, Armstrong was joined by Carmen McRae for heav­enly vocalizing by both singers. "I Didn't Know Until You Told Me" is mainly McRae, but Armstrong harmonizes with her sublimely at the end. Next up was a vocal version of Brubeck s well-known instrumental "The Duke," re-titled "You Swing Baby." The performance was left off the original album, but it contains some stunning trumpet, with Armstrong interpreting the tricky melody made famous by Miles Davis after his own fashion. "One Moment Worth Years" features an absolutely gorgeous mel­ody, Armstrong and McRae demonstrating deep chemistry, in one of the most charming performances of Armstrong s later years.

The highlight of the day, however, was "Summer Song," a heartbreak­ing ballad that would become the album s most lasting track. "On his poi­gnant performance of 'Summer Song,' you can hear the elder Armstrong accepting the inevitability of death and looking ahead towards his final peace, even as he casts a parting glance at all of his remarkable achieve­ments," writes Chip Stern in the liner notes to the CD reissue.56 Dan Morgenstern was present at the recording session and vividly remembered that "Summer Song" was accomplished in one take, before which Brubeck at the piano had played the song for Armstrong as he mastered the lyrics. In the documentary The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, Morgenstern said, "Brubeck was totally overwhelmed. As a matter of fact, tears came to his eyes when he heard Louis do this thing, and the record of it is marvel­ous." Jack Bradley, who was also present, described the session as a "a love fest, especially between Dave Brubeck and Louie. Dave would run up and hug and kiss Louie after every take. It was a wonderful session, and it went well, considering they didn't have time to rehearse."

The lack of rehearsal led to Armstrong having trouble with some of the Brubecks’ tricky lyrics. One song, "Since Love Had Its Way," required fifteen takes to get the lyrics right. After take one of "King for a Day," Armstrong remarked, "That was a real tongue twister." Brubeck asked, "Pops, what do you want to do next?" A game Armstrong replied, "I don't care, you call ‘em." Brubeck said, "I was thinking of your lip." Armstrong answered, "It ain't the lip, it's the lyrics. You don't have to worry 'bout my chops." After another tricky lyric on "Nomad," Bradley remarked to Arm-
strong, "You'll get your tongue worn out with those lyrics." Armstrong replied, "More than that, I’ll get my brains worn out."

But in the end, the hard work was worth it. At the time of the sessions, Brubeck exclaimed, "This is a miracle that it came off. I didn't think it would come off, without even any rehearsal." On the final night of the ses­sions, Bradley watched as every musician left until the only ones left in the empty studio were a satisfied Brubeck and Armstrong. "Boy, oh boy, what a night we've had," Brubeck said. "We've done everything on schedule. God, boy, we had such a ball."

While in Germany the following year, Armstrong was interviewed on television by Joachim-Ernst Behrendt. "The latest thing I've done is with Brubeck," he told Behrendt. "It turned out nice. Yeah, I told a guy, I just made a record with Brubeck.' 'Brubeck!?' I said, 'Yeah! I'll play with anybody, man, you kidding?' That's my hustle. Good, too!" (Nor was Armstrong kidding about playing with anybody. Only two weeks after the Brubeck session, he had reunited with trombonist Kid Ory at Disneyland.)

Having recorded the tracks for The Real Ambassadors, the Brubeck’s set about staging the play, but could not get it off the ground. But by the time Armstrong was interviewed by Behrendt, things seemed more promising. "We're going to do a concert with everybody that was in this session, right from the stage," Armstrong said. "It even might be on TV. . . And we're going to have the ranks and everything, same as opera, you know what I mean. It's going to be all right. We're doing it at the Monterey Jazz Festival."

On September 23,1962, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, The Real Ambas­sadors had its first and only performance, complete with costumes and scenery. The performance opened with a speech read by a narrator that showed no doubt that this work was written with Armstrong in mind:

Our story concerns a jazz musician not unlike the musicians you have seen on this stage the past three days. The personal history of our hero reads like the story of jazz—up from the shores of Lake Pontchartrain to Chicago and beyond—from New York to San Francisco, London to Tokyo and points in between. The music which poured from his horn became his identity—his passport to the world—the key to locked doors. Through his horn he had spoken to millions of the world's people. Through it he had opened doors to presidents and kings. He had lifted up his horn, as our hero would say, and just played to folks on an even soul-to-soul basis. He had no political message, no slogan, no plan to sell or save the world. Yet he, and other traveling musicians like him, had inadvertently served a national purpose, which officials recognized and eventually sanctioned with a program called cultural exchange.

Brubeck remembered a funny story about the Monterey performance. "At dress rehearsal, I said to Louis, 'You're the real ambassador, will you wear this top hat and carry the attaché case? The audience will imme­diately identify you as the real ambassador,' and he said, 'Dave, I'm not wearin' a top hat and I'm not carrying that case.' It came time to open and it was time for the concert to begin, Louis to make his entrance, and he came in, there's the top hat, the attaché case and he struts right by me and he says, 'Pops, am I hammin' it up enough to suit you now?' " There was no hamming when Armstrong reprised "They Say I Look Like God." Before an audience, Brubeck still expected the lyrics to get a laugh, but once again Armstrong remained completely serious. "There wasn't a smile in the audience, Louis had tears," Brubeck remembers. "He took those lines that we thought would get laughs right to his heart and everybody in that audience felt what he felt."

The Real Ambassadors was a triumph for Armstrong, but because of Joe Glaser no film of the live performance survives. "Well, the reviews were fantastic," Brubeck said. "[Ralph] Gleason and [Leonard] Feather—to give you an example of two people who weren't too kind to me—they flipped over it. They had tears in their eyes after the concert, and said they felt it was the greatest thing ever done at Monterey. But Glaser wouldn't allow me to have the TV crew turn the cameras on—and they were stand­ing right there."62 Glaser's insistence on not filming The Real Ambassadors has deprived jazz fans of the chance of witnessing one of the most impor­tant evenings in the careers of both Armstrong and Brubeck, but the stu­dio recordings are still in print and grow in stature with each passing year. Armstrong remained proud of the project, telling Feather, "It was five years ahead of its time and the big shots that buy shows for Broadway were afraid of it... I had to learn all that music, and I'd never done nothing at this kind before. Brubeck is great!"  And Brubeck wrote: "When The Real Ambassadors was performed . . . the most critical jazz audience in the world rose as one body to give Louis Armstrong and the cast a standing ovation. It was an electrifying moment.

With the help of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles developed the following video montage which has as its audio track, Pops’ beloved Summer Song as sung by him to the accompaniment of Dave Brubeck on piano, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums. [Click on the “X” to close out of the ads should they appear.]

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Dutch Jazz Guitarist Jesse van Ruller: From Amsterdam, Bilthoven and Utrecht

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

“Jesse van ruler is an old soul whose musical personality is firmly embedded in the here-and-now, he plays the lingua franca material with fresh perspective and idiomatic nuance.”
-Ted Panken, Jazz DJ and author

“While American audiences like to think they have a corner on the jazz market, there's no denying the fact that this art form native to the Unites States has also become a universal language being practiced throughout the world. One might even further suggest that there have been several key contributors to the jazz legacy who have come from foreign lands, thus leaving their own personal stamp on a music that now is multi-faceted and multicultural in scope.  From a guitarist's perspective, few would deny that European artists such as Django Reinhardt and Rene Thomas hold their own in the pantheon of jazz plectrists alongside American heavyweights such as Kenny Burrell or Wes Montgomery.

Add to the list of distinguished European guitarists the name of Jesse Van Ruller, the first non-American to win the illustrious Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition and an Amsterdam native who is beginning to perk the interest of American audiences with his original style and talents as a composer.”
- C. Andrew Hovan, Jazz author

One wonders, where does the Jazz path begins for a young guitarist born in Amsterdam in 1972, who grew up in Bilthoven, a small village near Utrecht in The Netherlands?

Next to drums, guitar is perhaps the most popular instrument in the world.

But one would think that contemporary youngsters who are interested in popular music, grow up dreaming of becoming a rock guitarist and not a Jazz instrumentalist.

With Jazz radio and television broadcasts vanishing at hyper speed, where does a youngster even hear Jazz today?

Put another way: Holland has a population of 16,696,00; Utrecht has a population of 316,448; Bilthoven has a population of 31,592: how does someone “find” Jazz from such a limited population base [cf: the population of Beijing alone exceeds 20 million]?

For Jesse van Ruller, his journey into Jazz began serendipitously as suggested in the title to his first Criss Cross CD Here and There [1217] and recounted by Ted Panken in these insert notes  to the recording:

"As a kid, I liked the Pop music that was on the radio, like Queen and Van Halen, and the music my parents listened to, like Fleetwood Mac, the Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan," Van Ruller relates. "When I started playing guitar, it was Classical first. I started electric guitar at 11, and started improvising a little bit, without the harmony, but on one chord most of the time. When I was 14 and heard George Benson, who plays jazz harmony, but in a Pop way that I understood and was used to, I loved it immediately.

The jazz aspect was completely new and mysterious to me, the notes he played were so different than the notes you heard from Rock players, and I wanted to figure out how it worked.

Then I found out about John Scofield, and went to the library and borrowed Still Warm.  It was a new world. From that moment, it took me and it's never let me go."

The aspirant gobbled up guitar vocabulary, paying close attention to iconic recordings and occasionally traveling from Bilthoven to nearby Utrecht to hear local guitarists. "I never got into transcribing much," Van Ruller says. "I listened, and then figured things out by ear, not in a systematic way, but more playful, trying this and that.

"I don't think I play like John Scofield, but he was my bridge from Pop music to Jazz. Probably what I liked so much about him was the dissonance of his lines, and the way he phrases; he sounds like a saxophone player to me, which is something I've always wanted to get.

Then I read an interview where Scofield mentioned other guys, older guitarists like Jimmy Raney and Wes Montgomery, and also Pat Martino and Pat Metheny, whom I didn't know at that time. So I went to the library and found some of their records.

"Wes Montgomery is like our godfather for his unparalleled groove. Jimmy Raney was probably the first guitarist I heard who was not a Fusion or Jazz-Rock player; I love the way he outlined the harmony so tastefully within his very melodic lines. And Pat Martino was a huge influence in terms of emphasizing notes or accents in lines and playing dynamically.

"When I got to the Hilversum Conservatory, I discovered Peter Bernstein, who is now a friend. I got a lot from hearing how he treated the tradition, taking the whole background of Wes Montgomery and George Benson and Pat Martino, and making his very own voice. He confirmed that it was possible for someone closer to my age to play in the tradition, but still make your own music, have your own sound. Where I was learning, everybody had to play at least Fusion, everything new was cool, but you were considered old-fashioned and boring for liking music that had been played before, and it was hard to dare to play it.  Peter gave me hope."

During conservatory years, Van Ruller developed his talent with a vengeance. Not long after his 1995 graduation, a friend (the singer Fleurine, who brought him to New York that year as a sideman on a record with Christian McBride, Ralph Moore and Tom Harrell) urged him to attend that year's Thelonious Monk Competition, which he entered and won, the first European to earn the prestigious prize.

"It had a big impact on my career," Van Ruller acknowledges. "I had a lot of press attention in Holland; it was quite special for a Dutch guy to win a competition like that. From that moment on, I made records, and I played a lot."

As you can see, for someone of his generation, it was more a matter more of good fortune and lucky associations that helped Jesse discover the secrets of Jazz.

Jazz fans of all ages are certainly a major beneficiary of Jesse’s voyage of self-discovery.

In conjunction with the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the motion mavens at StudioCerra, the editorial staff has prepared the following four videos, each of which features Jesse van Ruller’s guitar in a different context.

The first of these features Jesse performing with his current group – The Jesse van Ruller European Quintet: Peter Weniger [saxophones], Julian Joseph [piano], Nicolas Thys [bass] and Mark Mondesir [drums]. The tune is guitarist Grant Green’s Green Greenery.

Jesse appears with trumpeter John Swana performing John’s Philly Jazz with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland.

Joe’s Bar Mitzvah, an original by fellow Dutchman, alto saxophonist Benjamin Herman, finds Jesse performing with Hammond B-3 organist, Larry Goldings and drummer, Idris Muhammud.

Jesse is the resident guitarist with the Amsterdam-based, Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw, and he and this excellent big band perform his original composition The Secret Champ on this closing video.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Jesse van Ruller, Frans van der Hoeven and Martijn Vink," Blame It On My Youth"

Does anyone play Jazz at this tempo anymore?

Dutch guitarist Jesse van Ruller will be our featured guest on JazzProfiles on 9/18/2012.

Until then, we hope you will enjoy this video of Jesse along with bassist Frans van der Hoeven and drummer Martijn Vink that was recorded at the North Sea Jazz Festival in 2002.

The tune is Blame It On My Youth, speaking of which ....

Where does the time go?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Dave Brubeck - “Ode to a Cowboy”

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

It is amazing to consider the fact that pianist-composer-arranger, Dave Brubeck, who turns 92 on December 6, 2012, spent over 60 years on the road until his retirement from what his wife Iola Brubeck referenced in a message to the Jazz writer and blogger Doug Ramsey as - “The Gigs.”

Can you imagine - sixty years on the road?

I was reflecting on this incredible achievement with a pianist friend recently and his initial reaction was – “Just think about all those cruddy pianos he had to play on before he became famous.” Derelict pianos were a fact-of-life in most Jazz joints for many years.

One of Dave’s earliest albums for Columbia Records was Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. [CL 984]. It was recorded in 1956 and 1957 when Dave’s quartet had been traveling regularly for about 5 years.

One can only wonder at what such a diary of musical impressions might sound like if another 55-years of traveling was added to it!

At the time of its issuance, Dave wrote the following introductory paragraphs for the albums liner notes:

“A music notebook is as important to the traveling musician, as a sketch pad is to the artist. When lulled by the sounds of travel, the drone of the plane, the rumble of the bus, the clack of the rails, or even the hiss of the radiator in a strange hotel room, themes suddenly spring into consciousness. If a sketchbook is handy, the elusive idea is captured to be developed, arranged or changed. "Jazz Impressions" is a group of compositions created in just such a manner, from notebook scribblings made while on tour. It was recorded on three different dates, in three different cities (New York, Hollywood, and Oakland) as our itinerary permitted.

As many popular songs have been transformed by jazz into almost different tunes — different in emotional content, rhythmic conception, and melodic development — so these sketches by the Quartet vary according to the mood of the group and the individual interpretations of the soloist. The themes themselves, which are but the skeletal framework for improvisation, occasionally use musical devices which are typical of certain regions in the United States.

Although these pieces have their moments of humor, at no time do we attempt to satirize the indigenous music which served as inspiration for these impressions. Much of the folk music of America has become integrated into jazz, and conversely jazz has affected folk music itself, so that today we find endless cross-influences.”

The opening track on the  Jazz Impressions of the U.S.A. LP is entitled Ode to a Cowboy.

The following anecdote about Dave’s formative years prior to becoming a professional musician may have had something to do with the manner in which this Jazz impression was formed.

Dave was a working cowboy by the rime he was thirteen. "My dad," he said, "was a cattleman and a top rodeo roper, maybe the top in California some years. He was the Salinas Rodeo and Livermore champion in roping. He wanted a son that would follow him. I was the youngest of the sons, so I was his last chance.

"My dad covered the western states, buying cattle for a big company called the Moffet Meat Company," Dave said. "And like myself, he was always on the road. He wanted to settle down. So the company gave him a 45,000-acre ranch to manage, if you can imagine how large that is. In some places it was twenty-five miles across. He moved there and took me and my mother when I was twelve.

The ranch was in Ione about 115 miles east of San Francisco in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s.” [Gene Lees, The Man on the Buffalo Nickel, in Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White, p. 43].

Also in his notes to the album, Dave wrote:

Ode to a Cowboy is an example of group creation, after the theme has been presented and the idea discussed. Paul Desmond's alto becomes the plaintive voice of a singing cowboy, and Norman Bates' bass, his guitar accompaniment. The tango rhythm was Norman's invention, his contribution to the developed composition. Joe Morello's sensitive drumming suggests the presence of the cowboy's sole companion. A typical cowboy chord progression is intrinsic in the melody.”

The tune has always been one of my favorites and I’ve used Ode to a Cowboy as the audio track to the following video tribute to Dave which was made with the help of the crackerjack video team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities of StudioCerra. The montage contains many rare album covers from Dave’s years with Fantasy Records as well as many other images that I think you’ll find of interest.

Maybe someone will one day write a tune entitled Ode to a Jazz Musician and dedicate it to Dave?