by Scott Yanow
The Blue Note label has gone through four different periods in its 81 year history. Alfred Lion founded and ran the label during its classic era (1939-67), even after the label was sold to Liberty in 1965. After Lion departed, the label quickly declined, was sold to United Artists Records in 1971 and was largely inactive by the time EMI purchased it in 1979. In 1985 it was reactivated and, under Bruce Lundvall’s leadership, it made a major comeback. Even though Lundvall opened the roster up to having nonjazz acts (starting with Norah Jones who was a major commercial success), it continued documenting creative jazz. In 2010 Lundvall retired and by 2012 EMI had been acquired by Universal and Don Was became Blue Note’s president. Fortunately Was has continued in a similar vein as Lundvall as new young artists were signed up and Blue Note remained one of jazz’s most vital labels. Three of Blue Note’s recent releases are covered in this article, all of which are easily available from www.amazon.com.
Drummer Art Blakey first recorded for Blue Note in 1947, he led a classic set with Clifford Brown in 1954, and his Jazz Messengers made the majority of their most significant recordings for Blue Note during 1955-64. Just Coolin’ is a previously unreleased studio date featuring the group on Mar. 8, 1959 when it consisted of Blakey, trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor-saxophonist Hank Mobley, pianist Bobby Timmons, and bassist Jymie Merritt. This session was taken from the year that Mobley was in the group, between the more famous periods in which the tenor spot was filled by Benny Golson and Wayne Shorter. The album was probably not released because of Blakey’s many other recordings of the period including the two live volumes of At The Jazz Corner Of The World which includes more extended versions of four of these six selections. However Morgan is in consistently blazing form, Mobley’s relatively cool sound was an excellent match for the trumpeter, and Timmons’ worthy original “Quick Trick” was otherwise never recorded. Thanks to Morgan, “Close Your Eyes” is the highpoint of the set. While perhaps not quite classic, it is a joy to have this music available and to be able to acquire a “new” recording by the still-remarkable group.
In the liner notes to trumpeter’s Ambrose Akinmusire On The Tender Spot Of Every Calloused Moment, veteran tenor Archie Shepp sums up his talents by saying “This is the Cat!” Akinmusire, who has a virtuoso technique, sounds effortless when playing wide interval jumps, and is always explorative in his solos, has emerged as one of the leaders of jazz’s cutting edge. Most of his new CD features him with a quartet also including pianist/keyboardist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Justin Brown. Two pieces have Akinmusire switching to a keyboard and there are guest vocals by Genevieve Artadi (an eerie duet with the leader on “Cynical Sideliners”) and percussionist Jesus Diaz. The music ranges from brief sketches to more substantial pieces including the brooding ballad “Yesss,” the fairly free playing on “Mr. Roscoe,” “Blues (We Measure The Heart With A Fist),” and the free bop of “Moon (The Return Amplifies The Unity” which one could imagine Anthony Braxton playing. Overall, this is an intriguing and fascinating set of new music, and a good start to exploring Akinmusire’s music.
The Blue Note label has occasionally gathered together all-star groups to celebrate the label’s anniversaries, but Artemis was an independent gathering. Imagine a group consisting of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, clarinetist Anat Cohen, tenor-saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Noriko Ueda, and drummer Allison Miller, not to mention singer Cécile McLorin Salvant. This impressive ensemble (which incidentally is comprised solely of females) recorded their debut just in time before the pandemic hit but before they could go on tour. Their self-titled album consists of one original apiece from each of the instrumentalists other than Jensen, an abstract “Fool On The Hill” (which the trumpeter arranged), and three other songs including Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder.” Each of the musicians has an opportunity to be in the spotlight and to interact with each other with the highlights including Jensen’s hot trumpet on “Goddess of the Hun,” Aldana’s feature on her “Frida,’ the colorful dissonance of Rosnes’ “Big Top,” and Cohen’s haunting ballad “Nocturno.” It is a little disappointing that Salvant only appears on two numbers (both pretty straightforward vocals) and that there are no barnburners for the horns. This is very much a cooperative rather than competitive set but a tenor battle (with Cohen switching to saxophone) would have been a welcome change of pace. However Artemis contains plenty of high quality music. Hopefully this band will be able to come back together for tours and more recordings when the future looks brighter because there are so many talents in the group.
Pat Yankee is best-known for singing with Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band in addition to putting on well-received productions that featured her portraying Sophie Tucker and Bessie Smith. She has had a fascinating life and career, starting out as a popular tap dancer (even getting to share an on-stage dance with Bill Bojangles Robinson), appearing in a few B pictures in the mid-1940s, crossing paths with many show-biz personalities, and gradually became a singer who became popular in the traditional jazz world and at classic jazz festivals.
Now in her nineties, Pat Yankee recently wrote her memoirs You Gotta See Your Mama Every Night (Eight Decades In Show Business) with Medea Isphording Bern. Just 120 pages long counting 12 pages of photos (there are many other photos scattered throughout the book), what is here is entertaining and generally lively. Pat Yankee talks with frankness and good humor about her life while Ms. Bern fills in some of the blanks. Particularly rewarding are her stories about the early days when she was a hard-working tap dancer. Jazz fans will be most interested in her tales about touring with Ted Lewis and her musical adventures with Turk Murphy. Ms. Yankee also discusses the ups and downs of performing the Sophie Tucker and Bessie Smith shows and some details about her long-forgotten and brief film career.
While she hints at having had a wild life before she got married, one only gets hints. Also missing are any details about her recordings (she led at least seven albums during 1986-2005, is on records with Turk Murphy during 1959-61, 1971, 1979-81 and 1984, with John Gill in 1989, and the Hot Frogs during 1992-93) or any explanation as to what attracted her to traditional jazz as opposed to other types of music.
You Gotta See Your Mama Every Night could have easily been two or three times longer. It should not be considered definitive, but it is entertaining and gives one a good glimpse of the life of Pat Yankee, a veteran singer who deserves to be celebrated. It is available from www.lulu.com.
Cal Tjader (1925-82) was an innovative vibraphonist and bandleader who combined together bop-oriented jazz with Cuban rhythms (in addition to playing straight ahead and Latin jazz separately) to form his own fresh and influential version of Afro-Cuban jazz. One of the top seven jazz vibraphonists before 2000 (along with Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Terry Gibbs, Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, and Gary Burton), Tjader led an early group during 1951-52 and was a bandleader from 1954 on. Oddly enough, he had a couple of things in common with Pat Yankee although he probably never worked with her. Tjader also came to his early fame as a brilliant tap-dancer, and he appeared in a film (although without any lines) with Bojangles.
The second edition of S. Duncan Reid’s book Cal Tjader – The Life and Recordings of the Man Who Revolutionized Latin Jazz (McFarland & Company) updates his August 23, 2013 biography and adds additional interviews and photos. In this very readable biography, Reid covers all periods of Tjader’s life and career. One learns about Cal Tjader’s early life as a tap-dancer who loved to play outlandish practical jokes and could be a bit reckless, his transition to becoming a drummer and eventually a vibraphonist, his sideman days with the Dave Brubeck Trio and George Shearing Quintet, and the many bands that he led during his career. Reid interviewed virtually every musician that he could find who had crossed paths with Tjader (including all of his surviving sidemen), his childhood friend Merv Griffin (Tjader appeared on his show many times), and various relatives and friends. While he mentions most of Cal Tjader’s live appearances (a great deal of research went into this work), the reading is never dull and is overflowing with colorful stories and incidents. The book concludes with full-length interviews with Tjader’s two children and a complete discography of his recordings.
Throughout the biography, S. Duncan Reid deals with his subject quite honestly (he quotes from the many good and bad reviews of the vibraphonist’s recordings and performances), treating Tjader as a flawed but warm-hearted human being who made a major contribution to music. One learns a great deal from reading this work and is entertained along the way, leading one to go back and explore Cal Tjader’s recordings. Go out of your way to get this book! It is available from www.amazon.com.
Ronnie Scott (1927-96) was one of the top British jazz tenor-saxophonists of the 1950s and ‘60s. However his most lasting contribution to the music was probably opening up and running the London nightclub Ronnie Scott’s (along with his business partner saxophonist Pete King) in 1959. It became (and is still considered) the #1 jazz club in England, featuring not only the top British players but a long list of top American musicians.
Freddy Warren was a jazz-loving photographer who was at Ronnie Scott’s nearly every night for 20 years. He also took many other photos for other assignments during his life before perishing in a fire in 2010. After he fire, his nephew Simon Whittle was able to retrieve over 200 boxes of negatives which otherwise would probably have been tossed out.
The recent book Ronnie Scott’s 1959-69 (Reel Art Press) has an interview of Simon Whittle by Mark Baxter and an article on Ronnie Scott and his club by Graham Marsh. Otherwise this book is comprised of Freddy Warren’s photos of 61 jazz artists including Cannonball Adderley, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Tubby Hayes, Freddie Hubbard, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Lee Morgan, Buddy Rich, Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster and, of course, Ronnie Scott.
Most of the photos have not been seen in decades if ever, making Ronnie Scott’s 1959-69 a perfect gift for jazz fans. It is an attractive hardcover book that is available from www.amazon.com. I hope that there will be more releases in the future from the priceless Freddy Warren collection.
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Be well and safe everyone. The live jazz scene will return.