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Hot Wax -Album Reviews: March 2020

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Umlaut Big Band

Plays Don Redman – The King of theBungle Bar (Umlaut Records)

  • Pierre-Antoine Badaroux – director, alto sax
  • Antonin-Tri Hoang, Geoffrey Gesser, Pierre Borel, Benjamin Dousteyssier – reeds
  • Brice Prichard, Louis Lourain, Emil Strandberg – trumpet
  • Fidel Fourneyron, Michael Ballue – trombone
  • Romain Vuillemin – guitar & banjo
  • Bruno Ruder – piano
  • Sebastien Beliah – double bass
  • Antonin Gerbal – drums
  • Don Redman – arrangements

Don Redman (1900-1964), arranger, composer, and bandleader, was one of the architects of the Swing Era sound. Playing harmony under written solos? Call-and-response patterns between orchestra sections? Music for a Betty Boop 1933 cartoon/short? That was the work of Redman – he led his own bands in the ‘30s and contributed arrangements to the big bands of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, and Count Basie. While others eclipsed him in terms of visible success and fame (as leaders), Redman, with his refined, classy style, was one of the individuals responsible for big band jazz’s success. Later in the ‘50s, he was musical director for vocal legend Pearl Bailey.

The Umlaut Big Band is an incarnation (in a way) of Umlaut Records – it’s a European collective based in Berlin, Stockholm, and Paris. Under Pierre-Antoine Badaroux (leader/sax), the band, while members come from varied backgrounds, specializes in lesser-known jazz arrangements of the 1920s and ‘30s, including the music of Fletcher Henderson, Artie Shaw, and Jimmie Lunceford as well as those practically unknown in the USA such as Fud Candrix (Belgian) and Jack Hylton (English). Herein, the combo has at the arrangements of Redman and for fans of early big band jazz (as well as a taste of late New Orleans modes), it’s a stone delight.

The brief opening track “Have It Ready” draws a line as it were between (and connecting) the heavily-rhythmic New Orleans-ish style and the smooth sophistry of swing. It has a melodic hook that’ll grab you almost immediately – the sense of swing is just a bit ragged and rapid but with a sense of smooth sophistication rapidly coming to the fore. “Hot Mustard” slows it down just a bit, but it’s still a danceable tempo but the tune itself is rather tongue-in-cheek (with a deep horn growl that’ll recall an ancient cartoon starring Ms. Boop or Popeye the Sailor Man) yet the arrangement is smooth and sweeping. It’s the solos that are pert and tangy (and a brief piano solo by Bruno Ruder glistens like a light summer rain). “Whiteman Stomp,” a tip of the hepcat fedora to ‘20s big band leader Paul Whiteman, has terse, celebratory ensemble playing and a jagged melody over a tempo that if it were just a little faster would (almost) be punk rock. Almost unrecognizable, “Auld Lang Syne” is usually thought of/heard as a sweetly nostalgic tune but these lads do it urgently and irreverently, playing the old tune almost as if were the intro to a zany comedic movie. The sentimentality associated with this melody is completely forgone – the horns churn and the convivial tempo is liable to fill the dance floor. “Cupid’s Nightmare” with its elegant, romantic writing for horns is liable to inspire the slow-dance fans in the crowd while the luscious texture and pithy solos might warm the hearts of any Duke Ellington fan. Speaking of Ellington, “Flight of the Jitterbug” recalls The Duke’s quirkier songs with its rat-a-tat melody, plus it has touch of the satirical daffiness of Spike Jones (nearly-manic pacing, brief twisty solo bits). “Mickey Finn” (old slang for a psychoactive drug-laced drink) lives up to its moniker – a breakneck pace, deceptively sweet melodic fragments, and boisterous, almost over-the-top bravura in the horn arrangements.

There’s a fabulous variety of moods contained here – celebratory, refined, intellectual, wistful, and zany, sometimes all within the same selection. Solos are maddeningly brief – if your bread & butter is lengthy, well-developed solos you won’t find that here. (Try Ellington at Newport for that.) But short, sharp, keen, danceable, and memorable – that’s a-plenty. King of the Bungle Bar is unreservedly recommended for enthusiasts of original big band sounds as well as neophytes and the new generation(s) of swing fans. (Mark Keresman)

Ella Fitzgerald

The Complete Piano Duets (Verve)

  • Ella Fitzgerald – vocals
  • Ellis Larkins, Paul Smith, Oscar Peterson, Billy Strayhorn, Tommy Flanagan – piano

In a conventional performance, a singer and his or her piano accompanist establish a mutually agreed on master/servant relationship. The featured singer is there to sell the song and to address attention to the vocal art; the pianist exists – in the Platonic ideal – to basically stay out of the way and support the singer. The pianist can garner accolades after the fact; only at the conclusion of a performance do we retrospectively acknowledge that the support player has done a commendable job being there while, in essence, not being there.

There are of course no hard and fast rules in the reality of jazz though, and the three featured pianists on this elegant collection – Ellis Larkins, Paul Smith and Oscar Peterson – each have their own estimable way of doing things. Oh, let us mention before any more attention focuses on the team players that the singer is Ella Fitzgerald, who, as heard in her prime during the early fifties and sixties (and even when beginning to slip in the mid-seventies) is just about perfection. Culling material from the Fitzgerald collaborations with Larkins (Ella Sings Gershwin, 1950; Songs in a Mellow Mood, 1954); Smith (the ungainly titled, Ella Fitzgerald Sings Music From Let No Man Write My Epitaph, 1964) and Peterson (Ella and Oscar, 1975) – as well as a handful of additional stray duets (with Smith, Strayhorn and Flanagan) from the era – this set reminds us, as if it were ever really needed, of Fitzgerald’s resplendent artistry, and her selfless ability to meld with a sympathetic accompanist.

Ellis Larkins was a musician’s musician who, despite being a superior improviser (hear him on the marvelous duet recordings he made with Ruby Braff), came to be defined as a consummate vocal accompanist. His work on the Gershwin set and its follow-up is an understated display of his gossamer touch, matchless taste, and second-sight understanding of Fitzgerald. Presented with songs by the Gershwins, Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and other masters, Fitzgerald approaches each with unmannered focus and comfort, allowing the beauty of her lustrous voice do all the work. The Larkins, as well as the Smith, duets find Fitzgerald secure in the majesty of vocal simplicity and emotional directness. Only on the Peterson recordings does she, sparingly, indulge in scatting.

As unheralded as Larkins was, Smith – Fitzgerald’s pianist from 1956 to 1978 – may be even more neglected. On the evidence of his work on the 1964 recordings though he deserves an assured place in jazz history. He too seems to read Fitzgerald’s mind; his subtle playing, unemphatic yet somehow authoritative, wraps itself in seamless empathy around the dulcet vocals. With his just-right assistance, Fitzgerald turns in gentle readings of “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You,” “I Cried for You,” “Who’s Sorry Now” and other chestnuts that can stand as career highlights. Smith, like Larkins, understood that the spotlight belongs on Ella, and there it should remain.

Which brings us to Oscar Peterson. A musical force of nature, Peterson had to make a concerted effort to tame his virtuosity. He does his best during his duets with the – it should be noted – co-featured singer, but his naturally aggressive playing energizes Fitzgerald who turns in rousing renditions of “When Your Lover Has Gone” and “Mean to Me.” Yet even Peterson (who is given considerably more solo space than his predecessors) succumbs to Fitzgerald’s extraordinary gifts; his unerring support on the ballads “There’s a Lull in My Life” and “More Than You Know” matches her skillfulness and expressivity.

During her long career Fitzgerald made ageless recordings with all manner of ensembles, both large and compact. Scaling down her accompaniment for these sublime duet sides proved that sometimes all she needed to achieve greatness was a single expert partner who had her back. (Steve Futterman)

Sheila E. Anderson

How to Grow As a Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed,

2nd Edition (Allworth Press)

Sheila E. Anderson – on-air personality at WBGO, the most popular jazz radio station on the planet – has done something very smart in her revised 2004 book, How to Grow As a Musician: What All Musicians Must Know to Succeed. While Anderson has extensive experience in the worlds of publishing and music, and probably could have written her book without reference to any other voice, she has included many voices in this latest edition.

Just look at the list: drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Ron Carter, trumpeter and bandleader Etienne Charles, reed player Jeff Clayton, multi-instrumentalist Monte Croft, classical and jazz pianist Aaron Diehl, saxophonist Tia Fuller, jazz singer Allan Harris, saxophonist Javon Jackson, composer Mikael “Mika” Karlsson, composer Paula Kimper, Canadian-born cellist Dorothy Lawson, drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, jazz pianist and composer Eric Reed, drummer/percussionist Bobby Sanabria, gospel music artist Richard Smallwood, vocalist Camille Thurman, jazz pianist and recording artist Michael Wolff, composer/singer Oscar Brown, Jr., singer Ruth Brown, gospel musician Edwin Hawkins, singer Al Jarreau, bassist John Levy, conductor and educator David Randolph, and composer/pianist and world-class jazz statesman the late Dr. Billy Taylor.

Collectively, these established jazz (plus some classical) musicians reflect hundreds of years of professional and personal experience, failures and successes. Readers learn not about music history, theory, or instrumental technique, but about all the things they usually don’t teach you in music school, such as “On Development as an Artist,” “On Personal Growth,” “On Performance Etiquette,” and “On the Business.”

How to Grow As a Musician is a quick read and, while at the beginning of the book you might wonder why all these highly accomplished and credentialed musicians are being quoted so extensively, by the end you realize you’ve just taken a journey through the lives of 26 professionals who have grown themselves as musicians and as people.

Although the book draws mostly from the experiences of jazz musicians, the life lessons therein can be applied to musicians, artists, and professions of all stripes. This is a book worth reading – not just once, but several times. (Eugene Marlow, Ph.D., MBA)

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