Archive | April, 2011

Percy Heath: Smilin’ Billy Suite part I

28 Apr

Remembering bassist/cellist Percy Heath on the day of his passing in 2005.

Heath was past 80 when he released his first album as a leader, but he never procrastinated. Rather, he spent the bulk of his career with the Modern Jazz Quartet, or playing with brothers Jimmy (saxophone) and Albert (drummer) in the Heath Brothers Band. Few families have contributed so much to the genre of jazz as have the Heaths.

Born in 1923, Heath served with and was trained as a Tuskegee airman during World War II, but saw no combat.

When not carrying his instrument, he carried another non-musical one: the fishing rod. From Peter Keepnews’ New York Times obit: ”I made a living,” he once said, ”to go fishing.”

From John Fordham’s obit of Percy Heath in the Guardian (at guardian.co.uk): “Though his compositions for (the Heath Brothers) band were largely unremarkable, his solo playing was the diametric opposite . . . his improvisations became miniature masterpieces of low-register lyricism.”

And that first album (A Love Song) as a leader? It received rave reviews.  From John Kelman at allaboutjazz.com: “A Love Song finally places Heath, a performer who has literally influenced generations of bassists, front-and-centre.”

Heath was 81 when he died of cancer.

Sources: Percyheath.com, guardian.co.uk, nytimes.com, allaboutjazz.com

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Count Basie: One O’Clock Jump

26 Apr
Count Basie

The Essential Count Basie Volume I

Remembering William Basie, better known as Count, on the day of his death in 1984.

One name says it all for Basie, as it does for Dizzy or Duke or Bird or Trane. Count Basie said he was Bill Basie until one night in the 1930s.

From John S. Wilson’s New York Times obit on Basie’s death at nytimes.com: “One night the announcer called me to the microphone for those usual few words of introduction,” Mr. Basie once recalled. “He commented that Bill Basie was a rather ordinary name and that there were a couple of well-known bandleaders named Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. Then he said, ‘Bill, I think I’ll call you Count Basie from now on. Is that all right with you?’ I thought he was kidding, shrugged my shoulders and replied, ‘O.K.’ Well, that was the last time I was ever introduced as Bill Basie. From then on, it was Count Basie.”

Born in New Jersey in 1904, Basie started playing piano with his mother, and virtually never stopped performing, despite whatever hardships — financial or physical — came his way. He disbanded his band in 1950 only to form another; at the end of his life he often performed from a wheelchair.

In 1959, he and Ella Fitzgerald were the first African-Americans to win Grammy Awards.

Basie was 79 when he died of pancreatic cancer.

Fellow pianist George Shearing, from Wilson’s New York Times obit: “Can you imagine a man who kind of romps around the piano,” Mr. Shearing said, “and those tiny tinkling things. You never got tired of that business at the end.”

Sources: ntyimes.org, pbs.org, swingmusic.net

Around the World: Norway’s Tord Gustavsen

25 Apr
Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Ground

Tord Gustavsen Trio's 2004 album The Ground

There may be few more scholarly pianists than Norway’s Tord Gustavsen — he graduated from the University of Oslo with a degree in humanist and social studies and his thesis was titled “The Dialectical Erotism of Improvisation.” It’s available in the original Norwegian from his website, if you’re so inclined.

His music is just as impressive and easier to enjoy; it’s a beautiful sound which draws on his religious and spiritual background, although Gustavsen is quick to point out its Carribean and early jazz roots, too. One of his very first CDs was putting the words of the poet John Donne to music, which he did with vocalist Siri Gjaere on Aire and Angels.

He then formed his own trio, and has now expanded it to an ensemble on his most recent album.

Gustavsen from his website tordgo.no: “Taken together, the bands and projects represent my quest for a deepening of my own playing, in a dual movement that goes towards getting more and more intimate with the history of jazz  . . . This dual task is extremely challenging. It is one that can never be accomplished with completion. But it offers a constant flow of possibilities for emotional-intellectual fulfillment in grooves, phrasing, melodies and timbre. And when the music is really happening, I feel privileged to be able to contribute something.”

Listen to the link below to Being There off his 2004 album The Ground, and you’ll likely feel just as privileged to listen.

Next Monday: Sweden

Sources: tordgustavsen.com, tordgo.com, pbs.org, wbur.org

Harold Arlen: Let’s Fall In Love

23 Apr

Remembering the great composer/songwriter Harold Arlen on the day of his death 25 years ago.

Born Hyman Arluck in 1905, Arlen’s twin brother died in childbirth. His father was a cantor in Buffalo, N.Y., but Arlen’s musical interests ran more to new-fangled jazz than traditional religious. He began his career as Hyman Arluck, changed to Harold Arluck and then to Harold Arlen.

His songs included Get Happy, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,  It’s Only a Paper Moon, Stormy Weather, Let’s Fall in Love, Blues in the Night, That Old Black Magic and the soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz, including the song voted the best of the 20th century, Somewhere Over the Rainbow (early in his career Arlen lived with Ray Bolger, who played The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz).

His writing partners included Johnny Mercer, Truman Capote, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, Ira Gershwin and Ted Koehler; his music has been the subject of albums from vocalist Ella Fitzgerald to pianists Oscar Peterson and  Kenny Drew.

Arlen perhaps wasn’t as famous as his music. The website Haroldarlen.com tells the anecdote of Arlen riding with a cabby who happily whistled Arlen’s composition Stormy Weather. When Arlen asked him if he knew who wrote it, the cabby confidently guessed Irving Berlin, then Cole Porter. When told it was written by his fare, Harold Arlen, the cabby said: “Who?”

Arlen’s interest waned after the death of his wife, Anya, in 1970. He was 81 when he died in 1986 at his New York apartment.

Harry Belafonte, from Haroldarlen.com: “I consider Harold Arlen one of the three great geniuses of American music — the other two, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein . . .”

Source: Haroldarlen.com, from the book Harold Arlen: Happy With the Blues by Edward Jablonski

Paul Carrack: It Ain’t Easy To Love Somebody

22 Apr
Paul Carrack's album Groove Approved

Paul Carrack's 1989 album Groove Approved

Birthday greetings to British singer/songwriter Paul Carrack, who celebrates No. 60 today.

His 2008 album was called I Know That Name, and if you listen to enough music, you know that voice, too — whether with Squeeze, Ace (he wrote and sang How Long), Roxy Music, Mike and The Mechanics or any of his several solo albums. His voice has often been described as soulful or associated with the term “blue-eyed soul,” which Carrack acknowledged (link to the interview below).

“I don’t question it, I’m not a music analyst,” said Carrack. “But it seems to be a natural way when I approach a song, it seems to be in that kind of style.”

Carrack’s name may be best known for his time with Squeeze, even though it wasn’t long.

From Mike Ragogna at Huffingtonpost.com: “By now we should not only know Paul Carrack’s name, but also the person behind that soul-drenched British voice that sounds like he grew up somewhere near Memphis or Detroit . . . or at least on the south side of Sheffield, South Yorkshire.”

From 2008’s I Know That Name:

Paul Carrack interview

By noBy now, we should not only know

Andrew Hill: Siete Ocho

19 Apr
Andrew Hill: But Not Farewell

Andrew Hills 1991 album: But Not Farewell

Remembering pianist/composer Andrew Hill, who died on this day at age 75 in 2007.

If you’re looking for popular music that plays in the background as you snap your fingers, Andrew Hill isn’t it. But while he wasn’t always popular with the record-buying public, he was with his peers.

“At the zenith of my Blue Note recordings (1963-69), I found that fame and fortune were not my reward,” Hill wrote on the liner notes to the 1979 album From California With Love, ” but fame and poverty.”

Fortunately, Hill mostly avoided the latter (Ben Ratliff wrote in a 2006 New York Times story that “in a 1966 interview with Downbeat, (Hill) encouraged each of his listeners to send him a dollar.”) Hill taught and composed, but it took years and years for his music to gain a larger foothold with listeners. After Hill’s death, Ratliff linked Hill to Thelonious Monk: “Both were brilliant composers, and played in a style suited to their own writing,” he wrote.

Fortunately, Hill’s insistence on setting his musical career to his liking has left a wealth of music for many to discover.

“. . . Though truly unaffiliated with any movement outside his personal course, composer and pianist Andrew Hill has prospered on the cusp of jazz (renown) for 40 years,” wrote Howard Mandel on the liner notes to 1991’s But Not Farewell. “Which is not to say he’s enjoyed great financial reward from the couple of dozen albums recorded under his own name . . . Rather Hill’s created a deep and distinctive body of work that’s been self-satisfying, fascinating to the finest players of several decades, and sure to intrigue serious listeners for years to come.”

Hill died in New York in 2007 of lung cancer.

A track from the 1964 album Judgment! below, with Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Elvin Jones (drums) and Richard Davis (bass).

Around the World: Denmark’s Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen

18 Apr
Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen/Kenny Drew album: Duo 2

Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen/Kenny Drew album: Duo 2, released in 1976

Bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen might have the longest name in jazz — try fitting that on the back of a jersey — and was often referred to as NHOP, not to be confused with IHOP.

Born in 1946, Pedersen started on piano but found success and fame on the bass, so much so that the great pianist Oscar Peterson invited him to tour with his group. Pedersen declined, preferring his life in Denmark. And though he played with all of the great American jazz players when they came to Europe or when he traveled to America  — Bud Powell, Peterson, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, and countless more — he played with no one more often than pianist Kenny Drew. After Drew died in 1993, Pedersen released the album Friends Forever: In Memory of Kenny Drew.

From the liner notes of the 1976 album Duo 2, which Pedersen crafted with Drew: “(Pedersen’s) reputation spread over the continent and soon he was a very busy musician considered the best bassist that Europe could offer, a natural bass talent widely acclaimed by visiting Americans for his beautiful sound and strong rhythmic concept.”

Peterson on Pedersen: “Niels didn’t play the bass. Niels was the bass . . . He had it all. He had harmonic sense, he certainly had rhythmic sense, he certainly has solo capacity within him, he could play almost anything . . .”

Pedersen died of a heart attack on April 19, 2005. He was 58.

Performing the Milt Jackson number Bluesology, with Drew, below:

Next Monday: Norway

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