by Scott Yanow
Jazz’s top male vocalist during the past decade, Kurt Elling has grown in power and range through the years. Recently at the Moss Theater in a concert presented by Ruth Price and the Jazz Bakery, Elling’s voice sounded very much in prime form. He displayed a wide range (his low notes were particularly effective) and he sang with the same joyful sense of adventure that has always characterized his performances.
Elling’s current group consists of guitarist John McLean, Stu Mindeman on piano and organ, bassist Clark Sommers, drummer Christian Euman, and trumpeter Marquis Hill. The interplay between the singer and guitarist McLean was particularly impressive throughout the set. Elling started off with Bob Dylan’s It’s A Hard Rain Gonna Fall” (which found him both scatting and wailing some long notes) and a heartfelt ballad treatment of “I Have Dreamed” (from The King and I). Marquis Hill joined the group starting with “Lonely Town.” Since it was the Christmas season, Elling did “Some Children See Him” (which had some surprisingly fiery trumpet playing) and one of the best versions of “The Little Drummer Boy” that I have ever heard. The latter was given a New Orleans parade rhythm and became quite free for a time. Other lesser-known pieces gave the musicians opportunities to stretch out with Elling sometimes riffing behind the other players.
After a nearly two-hour set, Elling was called back for an encore, performing a picturesque and touching version of “Skylark” (with McLean co-starring) to finish the memorable night. With his constant creativity, Kurt Elling showed that he is still at the top of his field with no close competitors.
Jam sessions have been part of jazz almost from the beginning. They have often taken place after musicians have completed their regular night jobs, playing in dance bands or commercial orchestras. Finally, late at night at a private residence or at a nearly empty club when just a few fans were in the audience, the musicians got a chance to cut loose and take long solos on songs that they really wanted to play, playing simply for the fun of it for little or no money. The artists had opportunities to express themselves and remember why they became a musician in the first place.
While jam sessions had already taken place in the United States for decades, it was only with the development of the Lp that some of the sessions were extensively documented. And in Cuba, it took even longer. Cuban rhythms had influenced modern jazz since the bebop era of the 1940s and the better Cuban players had been inspired by their American counterparts since at least that time. But none of the jam sessions (called descargas in Cuba) had been caught on record until one night in 1956 when the studio at Panart Records in Havana was opened up for an all-night session that was recorded. Many of the top musicians performing in local dance and show bands were invited to drop by and jam. The highlights of the first night were soon released on two Lps.
Three other similar projects were eventually recorded and now, with the release of the five-CD set The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions (available from Craft Recordings at www.craftrecordings.com), all of the music is available together for the first time along with a 96-page booklet (half of which is Spanish) that tells the whole story.
The music on these jam sessions is not bebop and, while they swing, the performances utilize rumba, mambo, cha-cha-cha, and traditional Cuban rhythms. “Perfidia” was the first song released from the marathon session of 1956 but otherwise the tunes are obscure and built off of rhythms rather than having strong melodies. Since musicians were dropping by for random periods and then departing, not all of the personnel is known, particularly the identities of the many singers who joined in spontaneously. The initial night (its highlights are on the first two CDs) was led by pianist Julio Gutierrez. The best-known players from that session are tenor-saxophonist Jose (Chombo) Silva, and drummer Walfredo De Los Reyes with trumpeter Alejandro “El Negro” Vivar and flutist Juan Pablo Miranda also making strong impressions.
Volume 3 was led by the tres player Nino Rivera and features a ten-piece group with pianist Orestes Lopez, trumpeter El Negro, and flutist Richard Egues. Volume 4, which was headed by bassist Cachao, was a bit different in that, while spontaneous, the performances are briefer and there are many guests (including Lopez and Rivera) who join the core sextet. For Volume 5, the last of the jam session albums, the music is split between Cuba and a New York session from 1964. The personnel is largely unknown although Cachao is again a key player on some of the numbers.
All of the performances are danceable and mostly joyous with the musicians clearly having a great time. Those listeners who like vintage Cuban rhythms and the spirit of jam sessions will find much to enjoy on this excellent reissue.
Noman Granz was one of jazz’s great heroes. For his Clef, Norgran and Verve labels in the 1950s, Pablo in the 1970s and ‘80s, and earlier as an independent for Mercury, he recorded hundreds of exciting jazz sessions featuring many of the all-time greats. He loved jam sessions so many of these dates gave the musicians the freedom to stretch out on standards, ballads and blues. Granz was the manager of Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, both of whom he recorded very prolifically, and he was involved in both spontaneous and tightly arranged recordings that featured his artists at their best. He also organized and promoted a countless number of concerts, most notably for his Jazz At The Philharmonic which in the 1940s and ‘50s teamed together many of jazz’s greatest soloists, some of whom had not played together much before.
In addition to his musical activities, Granz refused to compromise when it came to fighting racism and promoting integration. Not only was JATP integrated but he demanded that audiences at his concerts not be segregated, and he was willing to sacrifice money for his beliefs. Tad Hershorn’s definitive book The Man Who Used Jazz For Justice (University of California Press, 2011) perfectly tells the Norman Granz story.
Recently a Verve four-CD set titled Norman Granz The Founder (www.universalmusicenterprises.com) reissued some of the musical highlights of Granz’s career dating from 1942-60. While none of the 44 selections were previously unreleased and the only real rarity is 1952’s “Con Poco Coco” from a Cuban group (Andre’s All Stars) that includes pianist Bebo Valdes, this box contains more than its share of gems. To name a few, “Blues” (1944) has a famous tradeoff at a JATP concert by pianist Nat King Cole and guitarist Les Paul, Coleman Hawkins takes a historic unaccompanied tenor solo on “Picasso,” “Castle Rock” was a hit featuring tenor-saxophonist Al Sears, Billie Holiday sings “I Thought About You” while accompanied by pianist Bobby Tucker, Bing Crosby swings “Blue Room,” and Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt take famous solos on “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” decades before Roberta Gambarini wrote vocalese lyrics to their choruses. Also among those featured are Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Anita O’Day, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Ella, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Terry Gibbs.
While The Founder only scratches the surface of Norman Granz’s accomplishments in the recording studios, it serves as an excellent start in exploring his musical legacy.
Since we are in Southern California, there is an awful lot of great jazz to choose from during each month. Here is a sampling of performances that I recommend checking out during February and March.
Catalina’s in Hollywood presents the great Roberta Gambarini (Jan. 31-Feb. 2), Tuck & Patti (Feb. 8-9) and the Oz Noy-Dave Weckl-Jimmy Haslip Trio (Mar. 1-2). The Jazz Bakery presents these groups at the Moss Theater: Stefon Harris’ Blackout Quintet (Feb. 1), the Eric Reed Quartet (Feb. 2), Bennie Maupin (Feb. 3 at 4 p.m.), Don Braden performing Earth, Wind and Wonder (Feb. 16) and Ralph Peterson’s Messenger Legacy Sextet (Feb. 22). The Blue Whale has The Bad Plus (Feb. 15) while Santa Monica’s Broad Stage features trumpeter Etienne Charles (Mar. 2) and Freddy Cole (Mar. 16). Vitello’s features Tierney Sutton & Sara Gazarek (Feb. 8), Nutty (Feb. 9) and Steve Huffsteter’s Latiny Litany (Feb. 10). The Soraya Theater in Northridge has Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra (Feb. 2) and Antonio Sanchez (Mar. 13-14). Largo at the Coronet hosts Anthony Wilson (Feb. 11) and Nellie McKay (Feb. 19). Disney Hall presents Snarky Puppy with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (Feb. 23), eight pianists (Monty Alexander, Kenny Barron, Benny Green, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, Gerald Clayton, Justin Kauflin and Robi Bostos) along with bassist John Clayton paying tribute to Oscar Peterson (Mar. 23), and the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Stars On Tour (Apr. 5).
The 41st annual Playboy Jazz Festival (June 8-9) at the Hollywood Bowl has announced some of the names appearing this year: Angelique Kidjo, Boz Scaggs, the Maceo Parker Big Band, Sheila E, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Harold Lopez-Nussa, Sona Jobarteh, and Benny Golson’s 90th Birthday Quartet. As usual, jazz is only part of the menu, with half of these artists not having that much to do with jazz, but hopefully the remainder of the roster will have a strong jazz content.
And in the slightly distant future, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute under the direction of Ken Poston will be presenting the Ultimate Big Band Experience at the Westin LAX with around 20 swinging orchestras performing during May 24-26.
Every jazz musician needs a well-written press biography, every CD deserves informative liner notes, and important events benefit from press releases.
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