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Learning Django

The following is a post I wrote last February, but got too sick to polish and publish.  Here it is now:

I’ve got a week’s relief from chemo, so neuropathy side effects, particularly in my hands, have all but disappeared, a good thing since I can now resume my guitar playing.  I’ve been wanting to get back to practicing the Django Reinhardt tune I’ve been working on for the past year—”Minor Blues.”  I’ve managed to get down the first 33 bars (out of 45) of an arrangement by David Blacker, a superb swing guitarist and instructor for TrueFire.com.  Blacker classifies his arrangement as “beginner,” but because of the timing and rhythm of this piece, which is swing time and relies heavily on flurries of 1/8th note triplets throughout the tune, I would place it in the “intermediate” level category.

There’s two versions of Django playing “Minor Blues” that I know of.  Blacker’s arrangement is one of them:

Hubert Rostaing (1918-1990) plays clarinet solo.  Rostaing is probably best known for his clarinet playing on Django’s “Nuages.”

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round navajo rug

The Warp and Woof: Round Ganado Rug by Master Weaver, Mary H. Yazzie

Complex music, especially jazz, does not always have to be inaccessible.  There are times when the musician is creative or clever enough to combine the complex with the accessible.

Mal Waldron is one.

Man, that guy can really play piano.  You wouldn’t know it though unless you listened closely to his playing because he’s rarely out front, no matter the setting.  Waldron seems to be perfectly satisfied to lay out behind the soloists.  His introverted playing style is full of  Monk-style spaces and brooding chord voicings, but always with swing.

Waldron’s jazz credentials run deep.  New York City born, he cut his chops with tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec and his band, playing the Cafe Society Downtown (the original renamed nightclub post-1940).  This led to working with Charles Mingus and others, but especially Billie Holiday, who he accompanied from 1957 until her death in 1959.

Waldron was firmly rooted in jazz traditions from an early age.  While serving a two-year stint in the army starting in 1943 stationed at West Point, Waldron had the opportunity to listen to the jazz greats of the time playing on 52nd St. and elsewhere in New York City.

Though he had a straight-ahead jazz background, Waldron’s music has slowly evolved into more experimental and complex kinds of music which were not as commercially viable.  Experimental or free jazz recordings were a risk for record companies.  As it was,  jazz records just weren’t selling very well during the 60s and 70s (jazz record sales had a 1.3 % of the total record sales in 1972; see Fabian Holt‘s Genre in Popular Music ).  Despite the economic challenges that faced Waldron, he continued to successfully perform and record.   By 1972 his music had evolved from the bop of his album Mal-1 (1957) to the avant-garde of Mal Waldron with the Steve Lacy Quintet.  Waldron often played strictly duets (for economic reasons as well as creative) with soprano saxophonist Lacy during the 80s and 90s.

As an example, first here’s Mal Waldron’s “Transfiguration” with Idrees Sulieman on trumpet and Gigi Gryce on alto, from the 1957 album Mal-1:

And here’s Waldron almost thirty years later with Steve Lacy in a duet setting, a live recording of Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” at the 1984 Berlin Jazz Festival:

While obviously radically different tonally and rhythmically, there is an experimental quality to the music that they both share.

Scott Yanow describes Waldron’s music as falling somewhere between hard bop and avant-garde.  The thing about avant-garde jazz is that it can scare off jazz newcomers.  Avant-garde jazz with its atonal and grating sounds can rattle the nerves of the most well-informed jazz fan.  With hard bop, at least you don’t need to understand what your listening to in order to enjoy it.  It just sounds good.  But maybe the fact that it “just sounds good” is not the only goal for the musician. Both listener and musician have different jazz expectations.

The other night when I played “Warp and Woof” a Waldron’s composition from his 1961 album Quest it occurred is a good example of how jazz can combine the complex and accessible, like the “warp and woof” of a woven piece of fabric. What Waldron manages to accomplish with “Warp and Woof” is to weave his “experimental” jazz into a context of more traditional jazz stylings.  Listen to “Warp and Woof.”  Mal Waldron is on piano with Booker Ervin, tenor, Eric Dolphy, alto, bassist Ron Carter on cello, Joe Benjamin, bass and Charles Persip on drums:

Jazz thrives on that which is fresh, original, innovating, therefore, ensuring that as an art form, jazz will continue to improvise, to evolve, to change, maybe into something brand new, otherwise, it wouldn’t be jazz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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JAM poster 2016

Official 2016 Smithsonian Jazz Appreciation Month Poster

April is one of those months jazz lovers like to salivate over.  Just check out the list of jazz greats who have birthdays in the month of April:  Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Gerry Mulligan, Freddie Hubbard, Duke Ellington, and many, many others.  Too many to name.

Just having the birthdays of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington alone would be enough to make April a great jazz month, with Billie Holiday’s on the 8th of April and Duke Ellington’s three weeks later on the 29th.

I’ve written earlier posts about Billie Holiday (see esp. Billie Holiday Centennial Birthday) and about Duke Ellington here.  But this week’s All That Jazz program I took the opportunity to play both some of the lesser known jazz artists who have April birthdays as well as perennial favorites like Bessie Smith, who has a birthday tomorrow, April 15.  Here are some of the most notable jazz artists I played:

Walter Bishop, Jr.—Bishop’s piano was a major part of many a bebop recording session.  Here he is leading leading a trio with the brilliant bassist Jimmy Garrison, soon to move to John Coltrane’s band, and bop drummer G.T. Hogan

  • “Blues in the Closet” from Speak Low, 1961; Walter Bishop, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; G.T. Hogan, drums
  • “Alone Together” from Speak Low, 1961; Walter Bishop, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; G.T. Hogan, drums

 

Joey Defrancesco Trio—Hammond B-3 master Joey Defrancesco is a relatively young guy, born in Springfield, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia) on April 10, 1971, DeFrancesco was the son of another Philly-area jazz organist, Papa John DeFrancesco, and the grandson of multi-instrumentalist Joe DeFrancesco, who worked with the Dorsey Brothers.  “Cherokee” features George Coleman on the tenor. The recording features an introduction to Coleman, who starts playing off-mic, gradually coming in closer and closer.  Interesting.

  • “Cherokee” from Defrancesco Unauthorized Bootleg, 2007, with Joey Defrancesco, Hammond B-3; George Coleman, tenor; guitarist Jake Langley and drummer Byron Landham”

George Freeman—Chicago born jazz guitarist (1927) Freeman has long been associated with the Chicago soul-jazz movement, but as a young man was good enough to record with many of the great territory bands of the forties.  The two selections here are from radically different time periods, but illustrate Freeman’s progression as an older, wiser guitarist, yet still grounded in that Chicago soul-funk jazz sound.

  • “Happy Fingers” from New Improved Funk, 1972 with George Freeman, leader, guitar; Bobby Blevins, B-3; Von Freeman (George’s older brother), tenor; Leroy Jackson, bass; Bob Guthrie, drums”
  • “Time Was” from Rebellion, 1995 with George Freeman, guitar; Von Freeman, this time on piano

John Levy—New Orleans born (1912) bassist has a birthday this week.  What’s remarkable about Levy is, first of all, his remarkable longevity: he lived to be almost 100 years-old (passed in January of 2012 at the age of 99), his longevity granting him the multiple opportunities to contribute his bass artistry to some of the great all-stars of jazz history.  Second of all, Levy had an interest in and a “head” for business.  In Levy’s own words,

I was probably just more organized than most musicians and had my priorities in order. I came to both of those things accidentally. When I was young, I had no idea how to be a personal  manager or manage talent or anything like that. But as a bassist, I had to listen intently to the musicians I played with, which created a more heightened sense of intuition and sharper instincts. (Jazzwax)

Levy played with jazz violinist Stuff Smith in the early forties at New York’s Onyx Club on 52nd Street (Magic Street).  He was also part of the George Shearing Quintet in the late forties, and did a stint with the Don Byas Quintet in 1945. Three selections follow, not in chronological order:

  • Stuff Smith with John Levy, “Desert Sands”from Stuff Smith 1939-1944, 1943 with Stuff Smith, violin; Jimmy Jones, piano; John Levy, bass.
  • George Shearing Quintet, “Conception” from The definitive George Shearing, 1950, with George Shearing, piano; Joe Roland, vibes; Chuck Wayne, guitar; Denzil Best, drums; John Levy, bass.
  • Don Byas Quintet, “Candy” from Savoy Jam Party, 1945, with Don Byas, leader, tenor; Benny Harris, Trumpet; Jimmy Jones, piano; John Levy, Bass Fred Radcliffe, Drums.

Bud Freeman—The genius tenor saxophonist turns 100 years old this week. Freeman is Chicago-born (1906) and is part of a long line of great jazz musicians from Chicago.  He was one of the original Austin City Gang in 1922 and went on to have a lengthy and influential career in jazz, passing away in 1991 at age 84.  Here are three very different tunes from the late thirties.

  • Bud Freeman and his Orchestra, “Craze-O-Logy” from Bud Freeman 1928-1938, 1928, Bud Freeman, tenor; Johnny Mendel, trum; Bud Jacobson, clar; Dave North, piano; Gene Krupa, drums
  • Bud Freeman Trio, “The Blue Room” from Bud Freeman 1928-1938, 1938, Bud Freeman, tenor; Jess Stacy, piano; George Wettling, drums
  • Jess Stacy and Bud Freeman, “She’s funny that way” from Jess Stacy 1935-1939, 1939, Jess Stacy, piano; Bud Freeman, tenor.  This is one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve ever heard.  Certainly my all-time favorite recording.  The piano/sax harmonies are pure, simple, beautiful.  Highly recommended.

Bessie Smith—This week is the 122nd anniversary of Bessie Smith, The Empress of the Blues.  Bessie was extremely popular during the 20s and 30s.  She is undoubtedly one of the most important jazz/blues singers in all of jazz history, right up there with Louis Armstrong.  It’s hard to imagine the evolution into the American jazz as we know and understand it now without the influence of Bessie Smith.  She combined traditional blues singing—an almost shouting, gospel style—with a New Orleans style swing rhythm.  Listen to Charlie Green improvise call and response behind Bessie’s voice on “Empty Bed Blues”; it’s remarkable.  It’s blues, but it’s also swing.  But she keeps a tight grip on that rhythm, in complete control of the pace and tempo of the song.

  • “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” from Bessie Smith Box Set, originally recorded in 1928, with Bessie Smith, vocals; Lincoln Conaway, guitar; Porter Grainger”
  • “Empty Bed Blues” from Bessie Smith Box Set, originally recorded in 1928, with Bessie Smith, vocals; Charlie Green, trombone; Porter Granger, piano

 

 

 

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