Tuesday, October 6, 2015

New (Re)Issues: Tony Bennett & Bill Charlap; Erroll Garner; Jan Lundgren

Besides having just been released, the three CDs that we are reviewing today are linked by the fact that they feature three outstanding pianists. First of all, we take a look at Tony Bennett's recent collaboration with Bill Charlap in the manner of dates that the singer has cut in the past alongside Bill Evans and Ralph Sharon. Then, there is the fantastic reissue of Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea, one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time, offering now the complete concert in a deluxe package and with several unreleased performances. Finally, we discuss a career-long compilation of Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren's work for the European label Fresh Sounds, which is an excellent introduction to the man and his music.

Few singers have thrived at the intersection between jazz and pop, between Birdland and Tin Pan Alley, the way that Tony Bennett has. Frank Sinatra famously ranked him high among the small group of great saloon singers, and although Ol' Blue Eyes should know, what Bennett has always been is a jazz singer who imbues even the tritest pop material with an unequivocal jazz feeling. At 89, and after cutting some commercially successful albums of duets and a collaboration with current pop star and personal friend, Lady Gaga, Bennett has just released a new album that brings to mind former LPs of his such as The Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Album or his work with Ralph Sharon on, for instance, Tony Sings for Two. Entitled The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern (Columbia, 2015), this new CD finds Bennett in fine voice and still tirelessly championing the music from the Great American Songbook, in this case the works of Jerome Kern. In his well-written liner notes, critic Will Friedwald eloquently describes Kern as a transition figure in the world of musical theater, "a direct connection between Brahms and Charlie Parker." Similarly, Bennett is a direct link between jazz and pop, and so a collection of Kern's timeless songs—which seems to have been his idea—is definitely right up the vocalist's alley.

Besides the repertoire, the other one aspect that makes this project successful is the choice of accompaniment: pianist Bill Charlap is a sensitive accompanist who understands singers very well and who is consistently able to provide the kind of setting that Bennett's husky, rhythmic voice needs. Three selections ("All the Things You Are," "The Way You Look Tonight," and "Make Believe") hark back to Bennett's 1970s encounters with Bill Evans, as they are voice-piano duos between the vocalist and Charlap. These are, of course, among the most intimate tracks in the album, only rivaled by the four tunes ("The Last Time I Saw Paris," "Long Ago and Far Away," "The Song Is You," and "Look for the Silver Lining") on which Charlap is joined on piano by his wife, Renee Rosnes. Both pianos are perfectly intertwined here, and the overall result benefits from their mutual understanding and from the delicately lyrical way in which they accompany Bennett. The rest of selections ("Pick Yourself Up," "I Won't Dance," "Dearly Beloved," "They Didn't Believe Me," "I'm Old Fashioned," "Yesterdays," and "Nobody Else But Me") feature Charlap's trio, with the unrelated Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. As always, Bennett feels extremely comfortable in this trio setting, and there is usually room for well-constructed solos by Charlap here and there. Tony Bennett is quite possibly the greatest jazz and pop singer currently still working, and albums like this new one show off his love for great music, as well as his willingness to improve his already vast and invaluable recorded legacy.

On September 19, 1955, pianist Erroll Garner cut a live album in Carmel, California, that, after it was released under the title of Concert by the Sea, was destined to become one of jazz's best-selling records ever. The original LP amply showcased Garner's dazzling pianistics in a trio setting, with Eddie Calhoun on bass and Denzil Best on drums, but it did not feature the complete concert. Now, sixty years after the event, Columbia-Legacy has finally made available the entire gig in a deluxe digipack three-CD set that includes eleven previously unreleased tracks, new essays by Dan Morgenstern, Geri Allen, and Robin Kelley, and a fourteen-minute interview with Garner and his trio taped right after the concert. In his new liner notes, Morgenstern observes that "Garner conceived of the keyboard as a combination of a band's horn and rhythm sections, rolled into a single voice. And his uncanny sense of time, his marvelous touch, and wide-open ears made that conception come alive."

The Complete Concert by the Sea (Sony / Columbia-Legacy, 2015) is one of the best examples of this, a magic night when all planets seemed to be aligned for the creation of unforgettable jazz. From the opening version of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," it seems clear that there is a special rapport between Garner and the rest of the rhythm section, and the audience is always appreciative of the band's efforts. Whether it is an uptempo number like "It's All Right with Me," a semiclassical treatment of a ballad such as "Spring Is Here," or a Latin-flavored tune "Mambo Carmel," Garner always feels at ease to experiment with the melodies, the harmonies, and the tempi, and throughout the concert there is a sense of excitement that is simply infectious. His readings of standard ballads such as "Autumn Leaves" and "Laura" are as lush and emotive as the uptempo numbers like "Red Top" and "Caravan" are surprising and exciting, showing what a master Garner was at the keyboard. This is a milestone jazz concert whose complete reissue was long overdue—too long, as a matter of fact—and it would be great news if it marked the beginning of a series of necessary Garner reissues.

And last, but definitely not least, we welcome the recent release of Jan Lundgren: A Retrospective (Fresh Sounds Records, 2015), a twelve-track compilation of Jan Lundgren's work for the Barcelona-based label, an association which goes way back to the very beginning of the Swedish pianist's recording career in the mid-1990s. On this retrospective album, we find the very talented Lundgren playing both as a session leader and as a sideman. In the former capacity, Lundgren always seems to feel most comfortable in a trio setting, driving the band forward with his characteristically classy swinging approach. As a leader, Lundgren is showcased here to great advantage via one track from his excellent album Cooking! At the Jazz Bakery (cut in Los Angeles in 1996), as well as two tunes from his tribute CD to songwriter Matt Dennis, which we have already reviewed in The Vintage Bandstand (you may find the review, along with our interview with Lundgren here). Lundgren has devoted several CDs to honoring the work of lesser-known composers from the Great American Songbook, whose compositions he reinvents from his own jazzy perspective, as in the case of Dennis's "Angel Eyes" and "Spring Isn't Spring Anymore." Retreating into the early stages of his recording career, this compilation also includes a track from his 1996 album, California Connection, a trio reading of Barney Kessel's "Swedish Pastry" with bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Paul Kreibich.

As a sideman, Lundgren has participated in countless sessions alongside well-known musicians who made a name for themselves mostly within the confines of West Coast jazz and who are caught here at the tail end of their careers but still sounding just as good as ever. That is the case of Herb Geller, Bill Perkins, and Conte Candoli. Trumpeter Candoli appears on two cuts, "On Green Dolphin Street" and "Rockin' Chair," which are among the best on this retrospective compilation. The track with Geller is a beautiful saxophone-piano duo on the little-known Sam Coslow number "Restless," which shows what an inspired accompanist Lundgren can be. In the early years of his career, Lundgren counted on the support and mentorship of the venerable Arne Domnérus, and the two of them do a clarinet-piano duo on "Barney Goin' Easy," a mid-tempo vehicle that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn originally fashioned for Barney Bigard. Two tracks come from a 2001 album that Lundgren made with pianist Pete Jolly: "I've Never Been in Love Before" and "You Stepped Out of a Dream" prove that Jolly and Lundgren are a perfect match and a sheer joy to listen to. In short, anyone who appreciates jazz piano needs to know Jan Lundgren, and this is undoubtedly the perfect starting point for those who wish to get introduced to his music.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sam "The Man" Taylor: Jazz Meets R&B

About an hour southeast of Martin, Tennessee, where my wife, our two-year-old daughter, and I live, lies the small town of Lexington, right by Interstate 40, halfway between Nashville and Memphis. It was there that the great saxophonist Sam Taylor, later nicknamed "The Man," was born in July 1916. Taylor developed a powerful honking sax sound that graced countless jazz and rhythm and blues recordings in the 1930s and 1940s, and in the 1950s he was in great demand as a session musician, playing on many memorable rock'n'roll records. Taylor was a very versatile saxophonist who always sounded like he was having fun on the bandstand and in the studio, and his energy was infectious. It is impossible to listen to any of his classic tunes, like "Cloudburst" or "The Big Beat," and not feel that energy. As notable as his work as a sideman is, Taylor cut comparatively few records as a leader, and among his most popular solo outings are the mood albums he made while touring Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, which may seem like a contradiction but is actually a testament to his versatility.

Sam "The Man" Taylor with Alan Freed
Taylor's professional career began in the late 1930s, as a member of the band led by Scatman Crothers, and throughout the '40s he would work with Lucky Millinder, Cootie Williams, and most importantly, Cab Calloway, with whom he toured extensively. As we can see, his r&b credentials are top notch, which perhaps explains why his wild honking sax style was so appreciated in the 1950s, particularly after the arrival of rock'n'roll. Around this time, Taylor began doing regular studio work with the likes of Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, The Drifters, Lavern Baker, Chuck Willis, and Big Joe Turner; as a matter of fact, he plays on Turner's classic recording of "Shake, Rattle and Roll." Toward the latter part of the '50s he made a series of excellent albums for MGM, including a 1957 collaboration with Dick Hyman that has yet to be reissued on CD. Taylor also worked on and off with a studio-only group called The Blues Chasers—other great jazzmen like Milt Hinton, Panama Francis, and Taft Jordan were also part of the band—and in the 1960s and '70s, he played frequently in Japan, where he had built up quite a following over the years, and where he cut a number of instrumental mood albums. With their soft string arrangements and ethereal choirs, these records are a far cry from the r&b sessions of the '40s and '50s, and if we are still interested in listening to them today, it is primarily for Taylor's elegant, soulful solos.

Unfortunately, CD reissues of his work have not been extensive. The most readily available compilation is Swingsation: Sam "The Man" Taylor (Verve, 1999), which includes only fourteen slices of his r&b and rock-inflected recordings of the mid-1950s. Here we find The Man at his honking best, on classics such as "Oo Wee," "Ride, Sammy Ride," "Fish Roll," "Real Gone," and "Road Runner." He is credited as the writer of some of these exciting rocking ditties, like "Taylor Made" and the sultry "Sam's Blues," and he is accompanied mostly by Haywood Henry on baritone sax, Freddie Washington on piano, Lloyd Trotman on bass, and Panama Francis on drums. On "Let's Ball," also written by Taylor, Alan Freed provides some shouting. This compilation is undoubtedly a good place to start for those who may want to get introduced to Taylor's music. The more serious fan should also look for two other European releases that are still fairly easy to track down at the time of this writing.

One of them, Jazz for Commuters & Salute to the Saxes (Fresh Sound Records, 2008), features sessions from 1956 and 1958 that find Taylor in the stellar company of Charlie Shavers, Georgie Auld, Thad Jones, Milt Hinton, Budd Johnson, and Hank Jones, among many others. These recordings present The Man at his swinging best, showcasing his always attractive mixture of jazz and r&b. Finally, Mist of the Orient (Sepia Records, 2014) is a fine example of Taylor's atmospheric recordings that were popular in Japan in the 1960s and '70s, and is also a worthwhile addition to the collection if only because of the beautiful sax solos and because the market is definitely not flooded with releases by Taylor. Anyone who appreciates the boisterous sound of a good honking saxophone played with elegance and ease should check out Sam "The Man" Taylor. As for me, every time I drive through Lexington, where Taylor passed away quietly in October 1990, I cannot help thinking of him.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Lesser-Known Bandleaders in Brief: Dick Stabile

Reading the excellent book Popular American Recording Pioneers, by Tim Gracyk and Frank Hoffmann, I recently found an allusion to a series of articles entitled "Famous Bandmasters in Brief," originally published in the magazine Jacobs' Orchestra Monthly in the 1910s. This gave me the idea for a new series of posts for The Vintage Bandstand, which I will call "Lesser-Known Bandleaders in Brief," and which will offer short portraits of bandleaders who either are not as well known today as they were in their heyday, or who were never able to achieve great popularity in the first place. This new series begins with an article devoted to Dick Stabile, an accomplished saxophonist who is best remembered for his work as arranger and musical director for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis but who made some very interesting recordings with his own band that are rather obscure today.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, on May 29, 1909, into a musical family, Dick Stabile was a fine alto saxophonist who had been around for quite a while by the time the Swing Era officially began. He had learned to play the saxophone as a teenager, and his first serious job had been with Ben Bernie's orchestra, but by the mid-1930s, he was already fronting his own band and making records for the Panachord and Decca labels, his band featuring vocalist Gracie Barrie, who would soon become his first wife. In his book The Big Bands, critic George T. Simon describes Stabile as "a handsome, smiling, gentle sort of Lothario" and praises "his amazing technique" (479), although he criticizes his ability to play real jazz, which actually sounds like too severe a judgment in the face of the excellent recordings that the Stabile band made between the 1930s and the 1950s.

During World War II, Stabile joined the Coast Guard, and so his wife led the orchestra until his return to civilian life, when he reorganized the band and resumed touring. A January 1947 Billboard review of an appearance at the Aragon Ballroom in Ocean Park, California, during which Stabile shared the bandstand with the sweet band of Art Kassel, mentions that the outfit is only four weeks old and refers to its style as a "would-be hybrid cross between Boyd Raeburn and Tommy Dorsey" (31), but the tone of the reviewer is rather dismissive and overtly critical of the band's sound. At this point, George Siravo was among the arrangers working for the band, and his arrangements were complex and innovative, perhaps prompting the comparison with Raeburn's progressive approach to swing.

In 1949, while playing at Ciro's, in West Hollywood, Stabile met Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and soon became their musical director, remaining close friends with both men until the end of his life. Stabile also wrote the charts for Dino's Capitol albums Dean Martin Sings and Swingin' Down Yonder (you can read more about these albums here), as well as accompanying both Martin and Lewis on radio and television even after they broke up their act together (you can see Stabile playing "The Man I Love" on television with Martin and Lewis here). The 1950s were successful years for Stabile, as he was involved with popular Martin hit recordings such as "That's Amore" and "Memories Are Made of This," but throughout the 1960s and '70s he concentrated on leading orchestras at various hotels in California, his last notable job being as leader of the band at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, where he passed away on September 18, 1980, following a heart attack.

The only CD compilation of Stabile's work currently available is the very interesting British import Many Faces (Montpellier Records, 2008), which includes material from sessions recorded in 1955 and 1957, with arrangements courtesy of Russ Garcia. Though this is already rather late in Stabile's recording career, the orchestra has not lost any of its vigor, and it sounds crisp, clear, and engaging, powered by Stabile's highly polished saxophone technique. The 24 tracks on the CD justify its title, showing that Stabile was definitely a musician of many faces, tackling ballads and uptempo numbers with equal ease, sometimes indulging in his trademark runs ("Many Faces" is a fine instance of this) but also offering thoughtful solos of great beauty. While it is true that the Stabile band relies heavily on arrangements and leaves little room for improvisation, the jazz content of many of Garcia's charts is undeniable (listen to "Just You, Just Me" or "Tenderly" if you are looking for two examples) and some of the tracks even find Stabile experimenting with Latin rhythms ("Hong Kong Cha Cha") and melodies out of the classical tradition ("Ballet Bleu"). This is the perfect—and, at the time of this writing, alas, the only—place to get a proper introduction to the very exciting and often surprising sound of Dick Stabile, and it is well worth giving it a try.

Dick Stabile on stage with his wife, Gracie Barrie (Photo: William Gottlieb)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Vaughn De Leath, The Original Radio Girl of the 1920s

The other day I was looking through my record collection and found a compilation of Vaughn De Leath's best recordings from the second half of the 1920s, and that immediately seemed like the perfect excuse to take a look at the career of a remarkable singer who billed herself as "The Original Radio Girl" and who was one of the true radio (and television) pioneers. Anyone who enjoys the upbeat music of the so-called Roaring Twenties should give her very interesting recorded output a try.

While she may not have actually been the first singer to perform live over the airwaves, Vaughn De Leath most certainly was one of the first female vocalists to build up a following and a career through the new medium of radio starting in the early 1920s. In fact, though some sources differ as to the date of her first broadcast, in January 1920 she sang during an experimental program originating from the studio of inventor Lee DeForest in New York City, and she was so successful that just three years later, the magazine The Wireless Age ran an article about her that began as follows:

Thus far no one has come forward to dispute Vaughn De Leath's claim of being "the original radio girl." Probably no one will, for the letters she has from her invisible audience are dated months before radio entertainment became everybody's job. Her first radio appearance was in the early days of 1920, in the World Tower Station, New York City. Even then she sensed radio's impending popularity, and she stoutly defended the latest of arts and sciences against those who contended it would not last. (February 1923, page 27).

Though it may be a little bit of an exaggeration to call her a visionary, she definitely was a true pioneer, and in more ways than one, since several years after her first radio appearance, she was also featured in one of the earliest experimental television broadcasts. A native of Illinois, she had been born Leonore Vonderlieth on September 26, 1896, and her stage name was a modification of her German last name. One of the reasons why De Leath (the name is variously spelled "de Leath," "DeLeath," and "deLeath" depending on the sources) was so popular in the early days of radio is that her voice was perfectly suited to the delicate equipment in use at the time. She developed an attractive crooning style that pleased audiences everywhere and that also translated very well to phonograph records, both in the acoustic and electric eras. Her flair for uptempo numbers must have been a primary influence on contemporary female vocalists such as Annette Hanshaw and Ruth Etting. She occasionally recorded duets with other popular singers of the day, like Frank Harris, Franklyn Baur, and Ed Smalle, and was an accomplished songwriter who often played piano and ukulele on her own records and radio broadcasts.

DeLeath made a couple of fine records with popular bandleader Paul Whiteman

Her career as a recording artist began in 1920, several years before the advent of electrical recordings, with a cylinder she cut for the Edison company, and then she spent the 1920s and part of the 1930s making dozens of records for both major and small labels, in addition to her appearances on highly popular radio shows such as the Firestone Radio Hour and the Columbia Phonograph Hour. De Leath's jazz-inflected singing style was often accompanied by studio bands that included fine jazz musicians like Red Nichols, Eddie Lang, and Dick McDonough, among others, and she was the featured vocalist with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra on at least two sides: "The Man I Love" and "Button Up Your Overcoat." In between her radio and recording activities, De Leath occasionally found time to appear on the Broadway stage, starring in the 1923 production of David Belasco and Tom Cushing's Laugh, Clown, Laugh. One of her biggest hits of the 1920s was the Hawaiian-styled song "Ukulele Lady," written by Richard Whiting and Gus Kahn, and following the success of this disc, she sang on a record of "Ukelele Lessons" released by Victor in 1925.

De Leath's recording activities slowed down dramatically toward the beginning of the 1930s, perhaps because her singing style was becoming somewhat dated, and so she concentrated on any appearances she could secure on local radio, as well as on other business interests, such as running a radio station and even a night club. By the time of her death on May 28, 1943, she was living in Buffalo, New York, had made almost no new records in over a decade, and had become merely a memento of an earlier era. As a matter of fact, Vaughn De Leath is hardly remembered at all today, and there are not many CDs available that feature her old recordings. One of the best is the European import Vaughn De Leath: The First Lady of Radio (Delta Leisure Group, 2012), which includes 24 tracks cut between 1925 and 1929. The sound is good considering the age of the recordings, and besides "Ukelele Lady," we find De Leath's versions of standards such as the Nick Lucas-associated "Looking at the World (Through Rose-Colored Glasses)," "Sometimes I'm Happy," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "I Must Have That Man," and "I Wanna Be Loved by You" (she even scats briefly on this last one). The two sides with Whiteman are also thankfully here, as is her fine rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat classic "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Unfortunately, the compilers did not see fit to include De Leath's very popular reading of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" (yes, the same song that Elvis Presley made into a big hit in 1960) but even so, the CD makes for a very interesting trip back in time and is an excellent introduction to De Leath's exciting, peppy singing style that, as much as anything else, embodies the spirit of the Jazz Age.

Clipping from The Wireless Age, February 1923

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Jones Brothers in 1958: Thad, Hank, and Elvin

In 1958, Leonard Feather produced a session for MGM that was subsequently released under the title of Keepin' Up with the Joneses, by a band that called itself The Jones Brothers. And who were these Jones Brothers? Although the cover of the LP does not offer much information, the three brothers were trumpeter Thad Jones, pianist Hank Jones, and drummer Elvin Jones, augmented by Eddie Jones on bass, who was not actually part of the Jones family. Though the three Jones siblings went on to have long-lasting careers in jazz, this album remains one of their most obscure, and at the time of this writing, its availability on CD is rather limited. It is, however, a unique and very interesting record that needs to be rediscovered, particularly since the three Jones brothers did not record together very often thereafter.

Elvin Jones
The fact that the cover does not list the names of the participants, simply making reference to their family ties, is a gimmick that must surely be attributed to Feather. The choice of material also seems to be mandated by yet another gimmick: as the cover reads, the band is "playing the music of Thad Jones and Isham Jones." While it does make sense that the album would include compositions by Thad Jones, who plays flugelhorn on the date, the three tunes by Isham Jones, a prolific songwriting bandleader of the 1920s and '30s, were most likely chosen due to Isham's last name. However, like Eddie Jones, Isham was not actually related to the three Jones brothers. In any case, one cannot argue with the selections by Isham Jones, all of them dependable standards written in partnership with either Gus Kahn or Marty Symes and included on the second side of the LP. "It Had to Be You" is actually one of the highlights, introduced by Thad on flugelhorn and featuring an outstanding lengthy piano solo by Hank, who lends support to Thad's horn playing throughout the whole performance. "On the Alamo" is taken at an agreeable, easy-swinging tempo and is clearly dominated by Hank's lyrical piano, whose magnificent solo lasts for about half the track before Thad even gets a chance to play his muted flugelhorn part. Another one of the most memorable moments on the album is the closer, "There Is No Greater Love," which becomes the perfect vehicle for an intimate dialogue between Thad and Hank.

Thad Jones
The rest of the selections are all Thad Jones originals, and accordingly, it is Thad's flugelhorn that is most often spotlighted, as in the case of the opener, "Nice and Nasty," built on a blues-tinged theme that lends itself easily to improvisation and even leaves some room for Eddie Jones to take a brief bass solo. The title track, "Keepin' Up with the Joneses," is based on a very catchy riff that is introduced by the trumpet and repeated by the piano; both Thad and Hank have ample room to shine here, and Hank shows his versatility by switching to organ halfway through the track. "Three and One" is another lovely mid-tempo melody by Thad whose title most likely makes reference to the fact that the session is a collaboration by three brothers and a fourth musician who is not actually a blood relative. Thad's flugelhorn sounds particularly low and understated on "Sput 'n' Jeff," which contrasts with Hank's quick, rippling piano runs. The brief dialogues between Elvin's unusually soft drumming and Eddie's rather quiet bass add freshness and interest to the track. All in all, this is a very appealing session that makes us wish that the three Jones brothers had made many more records together. It was reissued on CD back in 1999 and is still available here, but it is most definitely in need of a serious, updated reissue so that it may reach a wider audience than it has so far.

Hank Jones plays both piano and organ on this date