Hot Wax: September 2018

September 5, 2018

Dave Liebman/John Stowell

Petite Fleur: The Music Of Sidney Bechet (Origin Records)

  • Dave Liebman – soprano saxophone, wood flute, piano
  • John Stowell – guitar, nylon-string guitar, fretless baritone guitar

Sidney Bechet is rightly hailed as one of the seminal figures of this music, putting his stamp on the NOLA clarinet tradition shortly after its dawn, codifying and expanding the soloist’s language through his early recordings, and blazing a trail on soprano saxophone.  But he was also a fine melodist, a fact which is often overlooked when his accomplishments are considered, weighed, and packaged for historical use.  With this engaging duo date, saxophonist Dave Liebman and guitarist John Stowell aim to remind us about the beauty of Bechet’s compositional handiwork.

While Liebman is always a wildcard, cutting every which way in his varied pursuits, he avoids extremes in interpreting Bechet’s music.  He’s certainly no carbon copy of the man – don’t look for Liebman to paint precisely within 90-year-old lines or ape Bechet’s trademarked, mile-wide soprano vibrato – but he’s also not one to distort the image of the honoree.  Stowell, likewise, taps into his creative reserves while maintaining a sense of respect.  Together, they draw on the high times, leisurely spirits, and nostalgic breezes that carried much of Bechet’s output, while also making clear that this outing is no museum piece.

The title track – a signature of sorts for Bechet – is the thematic thread that’s sewn through the program. This pair starts things off with a wistful duo take on that classic, Stowell delivers a classically-oriented expansion on the song about halfway through the album, and Liebman closes things out by turning it into a meditation on twilight for solo piano.  Between and around those takes, eight other Bechet compositions and one Gershwin perennial emerge.  Highlights include a lighthearted “Daniel,” the gorgeously seductive “Premier Bal,” a “Nous Deux” with a romantic guitar introduction and a Brazilian tinge, and a developed “Summertime” bookended by Liebman’s mystical wood flute wanderings.  But to be perfectly honest, marking standouts may be a waste of time.  Every single number on Petite Fleur has its undeniable charms.  (Dan Bilawsky)

 

Teddy Wilson

Classic Brunswick & Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-42

(Mosaic Records)

  • Teddy Wilson – piano

Teddy Wilson, a musical genius who rewrote the rule book for jazz piano, has his name indelibly linked to two other towering figures: Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday. In 1935, Wilson, still in his early twenties but with important experience with Benny Carter and Louis Armstrong under his belt, began recording and touring as part of a popular and widely influential trio comprised of Goodman on clarinet and Gene Krupa on drums. The first jazz ensemble to publicly integrate white and African-American musicians, the Goodman trio made Wilson a significant, if unexpected, figure in civil rights history. Wilson’s fruitful association with the beloved Holiday also began in 1935 with a series of immortal recordings that featured the pianist and ad hoc gatherings of some of the most creative musicians of the swing era.

Yet Goodman plays a minor role and Holiday none at all on the absorbing Classic Brunswick & Columbia Teddy Wilson Sessions 1934-42. Collecting most of the key recordings that were released under Wilson’s own name, the seven-disc set makes the (unstated) case that Wilson would still be revered as a decisive figure in the development of jazz piano even without his participation in the epochal Goodman and Holiday recordings.

Although there are intimations of such earlier piano giants as Fats Waller and, in particular, Earl Hines in Wilson’s nascent playing–as displayed on the 1934 solo sides that make up the set’s initial tracks–his own unique sensibility was soon to come to the fore. Already a technical whiz with a deep understanding and command of the classical piano repertoire, Wilson could hold his own with any of the jazz keyboard virtuosos of the time. What quickly set him apart was a consciously understated manner that emphasized restraint and lyricism above overt excitement and abandon. At heightened tempos Wilson could move with railroad speed, but even at breakneck momentum his command of dynamics, harmony, and melodic content– his intentional control– was always front and center. On ballads and mid-tempo performances Wilson was incomparable. His touch alone was magical, light and floating, yet the architecture of his melody statements and improvisations remained rock solid. As Loren Schoenberg points out in his excellent liner notes, no other jazz pianist of the time was playing like this, and, subsequently, Wilson’s immense influence can be traced to such essential later stylists as Hank Jones, George Shearing and Tommy Flanagan.

There may not be a note of Lester Young on the set, and the brilliant  session with another tenor saxophone giant of the time, Chu Berry, and the trumpet legend Roy Eldridge that produced the marvelous “Blues In C Sharp Minor” is also missing (it turns up on a Mosaic set featuring Berry), still, Wilson gets plenty of support from a host of swing era luminaries he gathered including Goodman, tenor titan Ben Webster (in revealing tracks cut shortly before he galvanized Duke Ellington’s band in 1939), Ellington saxophone stalwarts Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, Goodman trumpet star Harry James (who, with xylophonist Red Norvo, enlivens a drummer-less chamber jazz session that produced the masterful “Just a Mood”), alto saxophone titan Benny Carter (whose triumphant solos turn such fluff  as “On the Bumpy Road to Love” into gleaming ore), trumpet stylist Bobby Hackett, and vocalists Helen Ward, Nan Wynn and, in formative stages of their careers, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne. This is great small group swing, both rousing and reflective.

The heart and soul of Wilson’s splendid art may best reside in the set’s ballad performances ( including multiple solo takes of “I Surrender Dear”) on which Wilson demonstrates how poetic sagacity infallibly aligned with his sharpened melodic inventiveness and harmonic ingenuity. In light of Wilson’s attuned sense of lyricism and how it ultimately affected contemporary jazz piano let a bon mot attributed to the pianist and Wilson devotee Dick Katz, do: “People frequently cite Teddy Wilson as the Bill Evans of his day–they’ve got that backwards!” (Steve Futterman)

Terry Gibbs

92 Years Young: Jammin’ at the Gibbs House (Whaling City Sound)

  • Terry Gibbs – vibes
  • Gerry Gibbs – drums
  • John Campbell – acoustic piano
  • Mike Gurrola – acoustic bass

So there was jazz vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, sittin’ at home,  doin’ nothin,’ enjoying his retirement at age 91. But on one of those lazy days at the Gibbs house, visiting jazz drummer/son Gerry suddenly surprises dad with this request: “Let’s have a jam session.”

Terry briefly – maybe a couple minutes – wondered if he would (now at 92) have enough energy. The verdict? “Let’s go. Let’s go.” No studio for Terry; he had enough of that in recording 65 albums.

So he called some sound techs who went to work to turn the  Gibbs living room into a recording studio, and Terry contacted longtime friend and colleague Campbell, Gerry grabbed Gurra and the quartet  was set.

In the liner notes, it is noted that there was no rehearsal. Once they settled on the 15-song repertoire (they actually played all or parts of 31 tunes), they did talk about their approach to each – and off they went.

Playing vibes is a physical act. With his/her mallets,  the player stands and often leans forward over the instrument’s bars to get a certain sound. The vibes player also is on the move back and forth, left to right between low and high registers. It didn’t take long to realize that Gibbs was up to the challenge. Retirement? His son knew dad still had it. Boppers-all (often with a swing feel) the simpatico band sounds as if they’d been together for years’ In fairness, it must be noted that Gibbs and probably Campbell could play this classic repertoire in their sleep.

The guys kick  things off with “Back Home in Indiana,” a real oldie. Gibbs sounds clear and strong as the band flies through the tune, then ends with a clever abrupt  note played by all. “Yesterdays,” usually played as a ballad, is in medium tempo instead. Gibbs shows off his ballad feel with shimmering sounds and tremolo or extending the note, a vibes trademark. In their solos, Gibbs and Campbell give us a subtle, surprisingly fresh take on Duke Ellington’s hugely popular “A Train.”

A capsule of other highlights includes:

  • Gibbs’ tune, “Blues for Hamp,” (vibes giant Lionel Hampton) played energetically as a shuffle blues.
  • The pretty tone Gibbs gets on “Autumn Leaves.”
  • A brief, but savvy choice of the bebop classic “Yardbird Suite”
  • Gibbs’ lovely close on “All the Things You Are”
  • An album-closing burner on which Gibbs put an exclamation point on proving at 92 that he still has it.

Maybe he’ll celebrate his 93rd by going on the road! (Bob Protzman)

Kalen Henry

Not Forgotten: A Love Story – Inspired by the Music of Nat King Cole (Blue Canoe Records)

  • Kalen Henry – vocals
  • Trey Henry – bass
  • Andrew Synowiec – guitar, lap steel guitar
  • Paul Viapiano – guitar, mandolin
  • David Witham – Rhodes
  • Ray Brinker – drums, percussion

The debut recording from 19-year-old chanteuse Kalen Henry is both a meditation on love and an acknowledgement of the durability – and pliability – of the Nat King Cole songbook:  Rather than take Cole’s most famous works on their own individual terms and turf, Henry refashions these numbers into pop-jazz presentations and sews them together into a single, universal tale of endearment.

The debonair swing and harmonic progressions that defined such classics as “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “L-O-V-E,” and other Cole-associated gems are paved over here with new intentions and inventions, lending Henry fresh ground to support her travels through timeless words and melodies.  On “Orange Colored Sky,” for example, she patiently introduces the song’s story over a steadying bass line that comes to bolster her storytelling before (and after) it’s swept away by a brief swell of power balladry; with “This Can’t Be Love” she invests herself in a mainstream radio atmosphere, drawing strength and support from tom grooves and eighth-note riffing; and on “Our Love Is Here to Stay” she ably vacillates between soulfully smooth environs and quaint territory.

While it’s tempting to lump Henry in with so many other aspiring singers, she stands out from the pack with a genre-inclusive outlook fostered by her vocals and, to a large extent, her band. Bassist Trey Henry – Kalen’s father and the album’s producer – provides a clear direction and strong undercurrent born of jazz but beholden to no single sound; guitarists Andrew Synowiec and Paul Viapiano bring a sense of folk, pop, and rock savoir faire to the proceedings; Rhodes artisan David Witham proves to be a master of finishing touches, contributing the right blend of glaze and haze to any scenario; and drummer Ray Brinker adds a session man’s sensibility to the project with his compact grooves.  Anything old can prove novel again when placed in the right hands, and this project clearly makes that point.  This music blooms with a sense of the familiar and the scent of the new. (Dan Bilawsky)

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