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FRIDAY SURPRISE: Jazzed for the weekend.

It's Labor Day Weekend, and the unofficial end of summer. Many of you will be having picnics, perhaps some of you taking a short trip, and what better way to start a holiday weekend than listening to some music?

A few weeks back I linked to a rare video of a performance from the Wolf Trap Dizzy Gillespie tribute, and today I have another from that event. This one is a performance of "Fiesta Mojo", and features an....eclectic group of musicians.

Standouts include Arnie Lawrence, one of the most underrated and sophisticated saxophonists in jazz; Sam Rivers, the pioneering free jazz improviser who gives a suitably restrained (for him) solo here; David Amram, the multi-instrumentalist who surprises everyone with a dual pennywhistle solo; and at 7:50 is Candido, who brings the house down with a conga solo that serves as a master class on how drums can be both percussive and musical at the same time. Immediately after him is a drummer whose name was immortalized in the film "Blazing Saddles", and I'll leave it to you to figure out how. (For some, this may be the first time the joke has ever made sense!)

With that, here's Dizzy and Fiesta Mojo. Have a great weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: A quick musical interlude.

Back in 1988 there was a special Wolf Trap concert held in Dizzy Gillespie's honor. Broadcast on PBS, it featured a veritable "who's who" of the jazz world at that time. I videotaped the broadcast, but over the years that tape has become unplayable. Too bad, as it contained some truly wonderful performances.

A small subset of the musicians invited would gather together in a group and perform a song or two from Dizzy's repertoire, then the next group would do the same, and so on - for nearly three hours of broadcast, if memory serves!

One such group consisted of Flora Purim, Freddie Hubbard, Airto Moreiro, Nicky Morero, Eddie Gomez, Kei Akagi, Michael Shapiro, and Dave Valentin playing an exciting arrangement of Dizzy's famous "Tanga".

Their video was up on YouTube a couple of years ago, but was pulled because the PBS station which recorded it objected to copyright infringement (as if they were making huge sums of money selling DVDs that
no one knew existed if not for the YouTube file!) Someone recently put it back up, and I encourage you to catch this great performance before it once again gets removed by short-sighted bureaucrats.

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Another notable passing.

This week I got the sad news that
Pete Rugolo has died. Rugolo was a composer, arranger and bandleader, and an influential figure in modern jazz.

Rugolo is probably best known for his iconic work with Stan Kenton. Rugolo's tenure marked the band's transition from playing simple dance music to being one of the most progressive big bands in the history of jazz. Rugolo wasn't alone; Bill Holman and Bill Russo were also actively writing for Kenton in those years, but it was Rugolo who became perhaps most closely associated with the "Kenton sound" of that era. He combined elements of jazz and 20th century symphonic music to produce works that were quite sophisticated and complex.

June Christy left the Kenton organization to pursue a solo career she called on Rugolo to do the arrangements and lead the band for her first album, “Something Cool”. Rugolo's distinctive style was as important to her sound as it was to Kenton’s, and they recorded a number of albums that together define her best work.

He also worked with Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine, Mel Torme, and many other notable performers during his long career.

Rugolo did a stint in Hollywood doing film scores and television themes. One of his most well known arrangements was a jazzy reinterpretation of the "Leave it to Beaver" theme song, used for that show's final season. His Hollywood work was not as inventive as what he did for the great jazz bands and singers, but they still stand out amongst the tepid work normally associated with that town.

One of my favorite Rugolo arrangements for Stan Kenton was "Love For Sale." He did the original arrangement in the 1950s, and Kenton would perform it regularly over the years. Here is Kenton's 1977 version of Rugolo's work:

In this arrangement of "Lazy Afternoon" for June Christy you can clearly hear the influence of modern classical music on Rugolo's work:

Here's a sample of some of his Hollywood work, "Who's Sam" from the television show "Richard Diamond":

Here's Rugolo's modernistic interpretation of Claude Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun", performed by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra:

Finally, one of Rugolo's most well known compositions for Stan Kenton, "Artistry In Percussion":

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: You could always count on Hank. Not easily, though.

The latter part of September marks the birth - and the death - of an immensely influential, if not terribly recognized, musician:
Hank Levy.

Hank started out as a baritone sax player but made his mark as a composer/arranger for Stan Kenton, Don Ellis, and Sal Salvador. His specialty was 'odd' time signatures that often changed during the song, making for very complex compositions. It was his association with the extremely forward-thinking Ellis that perhaps most influenced his love of unusual times, where Ellis was a true pioneer.

Ellis' compositions tended to be raw, obviously difficult yet still exciting, still 'swinging'. Levy took that same energy but put it into compositions that were a bit more subtle. I remember reading a comment that Levy was the 'commercialized' version of Ellis, a criticism I think unfair particularly given the number of his charts that Ellis recorded. Take 'Chain Reaction', from Ellis' 'Connection' album:

Levy wrote quite a number of songs and the last few Kenton albums were heavily populated by them.
I featured a live Kenton version of 'Chiapas' in this blog some time back, but that was far from his only contribution to the Kenton legacy. One of his more sedate compositions for the Kenton orchestra, in the unusual-for-Levy-becuase-it's-not-unusual 4/4 time signature, transforms from a plaintive ballad to an absolute burner: 'A Smith Named Greg', from the superb 'Kenton '76' album.

Some of his compositions are rare; I'm still looking for a copy of his only work with Bill Watrous, titled "Bread and Watrous". Luckily, though, the bulk of his work with Ellis and Kenton is generally available. I'll leave you with my favorite Levy tune and one of my all-time favorite Kenton recordings, 'Time For A Change' - which (if memory serves from personally playing it back in '79) was actually notated as 6+3. Enjoy!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: I don't often like singers, but there are exceptions.

The reaction to last week's Surprise was, well, a little surprising. I had no idea there were so many June Christy fans out there, and not all of them old geezers like yours truly. (Can someone of barely 50 years legitimately call himself a geezer?) I'm really quite happy about that, as it shows that perhaps the unadorned human voice may yet win out over AutoTune!

In reality there aren't many singers I like listening to, making her one of a very select few. I should clarify: there aren't many
jazz singers I like listening to, because jazz to me is about the music, not the lyrics. It therefore takes a very special vocalist to capture my attention and make me focus on the voice rather than the instruments. June Christy did that.

Another who can do that, and more consistently even than Miss Christy, is Stacey Kent. Stacey is an American who lives (with her musician husband) in Europe. She ended up there not because she intended to become a singer, but because she had just graduated with a degree in comparative literature and decided that England would be a nice vacation.

While there she started singing informally and, buoyed by the reception, enrolled in London's famous Guildhall School of Music. There she met tenor saxophonist Jim Tomlinson, whom she would later marry, and started singing with him. Her unusual voice and phrasing quickly garnered a devoted fan base and won over critics. She's been recording and performing non-stop ever since.

Stacey's style is unique and instantly recognizable. I can't recall ever hearing anyone quite like her, and I think she’s one of the best things to happen to jazz in a long time.

Her first albums were mostly of standards that were simply done incredibly well, making even an old Cole Porter tune like "It's Too Darn Hot" sound fresh and interesting:

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the movie "State Fair"; one of the best tunes to come from it is also one of my all-time favorites: "It Might As Well Be Spring". I wrote an arrangement of it in college, but my version was utterly forgettable; hers isn't. It's set with a bit of a lilting bossa nova beat that is incredibly effective (and something I wasn't creative enough to think of):

Kent doesn't just do the familiar; here she is singing "The Ice Hotel", an original collaboration between husband Tomlinson and novelist Kazuro Ishiguro. It's fast becoming one of my most-listened tracks:

Very few singers can take on the signature tune of another artist and make it their own. Stacey does just that on a song nearly synonymous with Louis Armstrong, who first recorded it in 1968. Fans of the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam" will instantly recognize "What A Wonderful World", but you've never heard it quite like this:

Kinda makes you forget ol' Satchmo completely, doesn't it?

There's lots more of her work on YouTube, and of course iTunes has her albums. Give her a listen, and I think you'll become a fan like me.

Have a great weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: The Misty Miss Christy.

In 1945 Stan Kenton's capricious vocalist, Anita O'Day, quit to rejoin Gene Krupa's band. Stan needed a singer, and out of the auditions he held one stood out: a girl name Shirley Luster. He hired her and after a name change to the more stage friendly June Christy, she would become the singer perhaps best associated with the avant-garde Kenton orchestra.

In the beginning the young Christy looked and sounded a lot like her predecessor, but without the drug problems and erratic behavior issues that plagued O’Day. Her resemblance (and reliability) may have had a lot to do with her being hired, but she soon found her own unique voice and became a favorite of both the band and the fans. Though she stopped touring with the band in 1953, she would sing with Kenton off and on until the mid-60s.

After her retirement in 1965 she recorded only a single album, a hard-to-find work that was released in 1977. She died in 1990, at the relatively young age of 65.

I've read interviews with her in which she downplayed both her abilities and her importance to the jazz world. She simply didn't believe that her work, both with Kenton and solo, was of great musical value and that attitude no doubt had a lot to do with her decision to quit singing. The ironic thing is that she was not only the singer perhaps most associated with Kenton, but her solo debut album "Something Cool" is today regarded as one of the seminal vocal albums of the cool jazz movement that swept across the country in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Not bad for someone who insisted she wasn’t a jazz singer!

This 1963 recording of "Fly Me To The Moon" showcases her unique style most effectively (despite the bad audio quality of the YouTube upload):

Gone but hardly forgotten, her most recent gig was on the show 'Family Guy', where her recording of the song "Give Me The Simple Life" was presented to a new generation:

Haver a great (and safe) holiday weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Another musician I admire.

I haven't talked much about music lately, despite it being an important part of life -- not just mine, but everyone's. It's because of the importance of music to our social and intellectual development that I despair for the musical literacy of our country; American Idol has conditioned the population to consume the musical equivalent of fast food, substituting quantity and glitz for quality and interpretative insight. (It’s sad when a vocalist vying for national attention can’t sing in tune, a basic requirement that seems to elude virtually all of their contestants. Hey, but they look good on camera!)

While most apparent in the pop music genre, this lessening of audience discernment occurs in the classical and jazz worlds as well (though to a lesser extent.) There are musicians and singers who become sensations despite not being at the top of their game, and others whose prodigious talent goes unfathomably ignored.

An example of the latter is jazz trumpeter Claudio Roditi. Originally from Brazil, he moved to the U.S. in the '70s and has been hard at work ever since. Virtually unknown to the casual jazz listener but held in high regard by other musicians, he continually surprises with the complexity of his improvisation. While some players can concoct equally sophisticated solos, Roditi does it musically; in other words, his playing is still listenable, still "swings", while having great depth and displaying superb technique.

Still he remains a somewhat obscure. This might be because his subtle style gets lost when relegated to mere background music. To appreciate what he's doing one must actively listen (which is, in my never to be humble opinion, the case with all good music.)

Here for your active listening pleasure is Claudio Roditi at his best: "Gemini Man", from a great 2007 live session with pianist Helio Alves, bassist Leonardo Cioglia, and drummer Duduka da Fonseca. Happy weekend!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: Maybe there is something at work today.

Not being triskaidekaphobic, I normally don't pay much attention to Fridays that happen to fall on the thirteenth of the month. This particular Friday, however, is a little different: it was Friday, May 13th in 1988 that the jazz world lost one of its more talented members in a very odd manner.

Chet Baker was a trumpet player of uncommon talent. His phrasing, often chided as being 'feminine', stood in stark contrast to the edgier playing of many of his contemporaries. His solos were deceptively simple to the uninitiated, but showed a sophistication that is intriguing even today. Miles Davis got all the attention, but it was Chet Baker who was more interesting to listen to.

Chet also sang, and in later years tended to do that more than play his horn. His singing was what attracted the crowds, but wasn't nearly as inspiring as what he could do with his horn.

He struggled with heroin addiction for most of his adult life, which drained him physically and landed him in jail on numerous occasions. He managed to get himself thrown out of a couple of countries, and at one point was reported to have lived on the street. Like Charlie Parker, he was known for pawning his horns to buy the drugs he craved. Despite all that, he managed several comebacks -- the most notable being in the late 1970s.

He fell to his death on this day in 1988 from a second-story hotel room in Amsterdam. The death was apparently accidental, and it was determined that he was high on both heroin and cocaine at the time.

Here are two clips -- one early, one late -- showing Chet at his best. Happy Friday the Thirteenth!

-=[ Grant ]=-

FRIDAY SURPRISE: One more time.

Since this is a holiday weekend, the customary end of summer, I thought a little more music was in order. Why not celebrate with another Stan Kenton piece?

This one, recorded in 1977, features my favorite incarnation of the Kenton group - with a number of local (to me) connections.

Lead trombonist Dick Shearer, as I mentioned last time, retired to my hometown - where I'd gone to high school with the brother of Kenton's baritone sax player, Alan Yankee. Stan's drummer, Gary Hobbs, also settled in Oregon. The trombone soloist on this piece, Jeff Uusitalo, eventually made his home just across the river in the Vancouver (Washington) area - where the sax soloist, Terry Layne, grew up and went to high school.

Small world. But, as
Steven Wright reminds us, “I wouldn’t want to have to paint it.”

Have a good weekend, and don’t be surprised if I take Monday off!

-=[ Grant ]=-