By Scott Yanow
I recently attended a special showing of a new documentary on Dave Grusin, Not Enough Time, which was sponsored by the Society of Composers & Lyricists. The wonderful 85-minute film which was directed by Barbara Bentree, produced by Ms. Bentree and John Rangel, and co-produced by Robin and Nick Heizmann (of NiRo Music) and Nan Newton, is a treasure, as is its subject.
To say that Dave Grusin has had a busy career would be a major understatement. A versatile jazz pianist, arranger and composer, Grusin is also one of the most respected film and television composers, has worked with a vast number of artists that reach far beyond jazz, and with Larry Rosen he ran the influential GRP label for 30 years.
Somehow Barbara Bentree and her staff covered all of these aspects of Grusin’s productive career and much more in the consistently colorful documentary. The editing of the film is particularly inspired and there is not a slow moment throughout the entire production. It starts off by showing Dave Grusin home at his ranch in Santa Fe as he talks a little about his beginnings and how he almost became a veterinarian. After a brief period in the Navy and attending the Manhattan School of Music, he became Andy Williams’ music director. Grusin worked on Williams’ television series where he conducted the NBC Orchestra, played piano, and had occasional lines. In this film he is shown at the beginning of a comedy sketch with Jack Benny.
Along the way one learns about his arranging for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, the lessons that he picked up Antonio Carlos Jobim during a period in Brazil, and his work with Simon & Garfunkel on The Graduate. Grusin composed many television theme songs, wrote for an average of six movies a year, and founded GRP, all during the same period. Grusin talks about writing the music for On Golden Pond. He asked himself “What does New England sound like?” and decided that it sounds like Protestant chords. Grusin is shown leading and playing piano with the GRP All-Stars during an impressive version of “Sister Sadie,” talking about his work on The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Firm, working with James Taylor, and performing his version of part of the West Side Story score at the Monterey Jazz Festival. And through it all, Dave Grusin (who is also shown relaxing at his vacation home in Montana) is portrayed as a nice guy who works hard and wishes that he had time to accomplish even more.
With many incisive interview excerpts from the likes of Tom Brokaw, Ernie Watts, Quincy Jones, Marcus Miler (the latter two were in the audience for the film showing), Lee Ritenour, Eddie Daniels, and the composer himself, this is a well-rounded and definitive portrait of a continually productive if underrated artist. See it when you can!
Monty Alexander has been a major jazz pianist since the mid-1960s, making his recording debut in 1964. Now 75, at Catalina Bar & Grill he showed that he has lost none of his technique, enthusiasm and creativity even after 55 years on the scene. Joined by his longtime bassist J.J. Shakur and drummer Jason Brown, Alexander performed a nearly two-hour set full of inventive swing, warm melody statements, witty storytelling about his career, and pure joy.Starting off with his original “Hello,” the brilliant pianist performed such numbers as “You Are My Sunshine” (which progressed from a New Orleans r&b groove to bop), his spiritual “Look Up,” a particularly creative version of John Lewis’ “Django,” “We’ve Only Just Begun” (which he gave a “Listen Here” groove), “Come Fly With Me,” and even “Feelings” (which he made quite listenable), a James Bond medley and “Battle Hymn Of The Republic.” With solid support and occasional solos from Shakur and Brown, everything worked very well and the audience was delighted.
It was quite enjoyable watching a true master at work.
Since he first made a strong impression with Steve Coleman’s Five Elements in 1995 (which was also the year that he led his first album), Vijay Iyer has become one of the most honored and influential musicians in jazz. His piano playing and compositions are quite original and, while being easily classified as “avant-garde,” they do not sound like any of his predecessors.
At the Soraya in Northridge, Vijay Iyer led the same sextet that in 2017 recorded the ECM album Far From Over and appeared at that year’s Monterey Jazz Festival (Graham Haynes on cornet and flugelhorn, tenor-saxophonist Mark Shim, altoist Steve Lehman and bassist Stephan Crump) except that Jeremy Dutton was on drums instead of Tyshawn Sorey. The music was pretty continuous during the two sets with only a brief pause or two along the way.
Comprised entirely of originals, Iyer led his sextet through pieces that often had a slightly funky rhythm, dense ensembles, dissonant themes, both composed and jammed ensembles, and plenty of room for the individual musicians (particularly the horn players) to express themselves. In most cases the implied rhythms kept the pieces interesting even during its more forbidding sections.
Shim, who displayed a large tone and a muscular style, was often the top soloist although Lehman (who hinted at Eric Dolphy in his tone but without the interval jumps) was also quite inventive. Unfortunately Haynes spent half of his solo time distorting his tone on flugelhorn via electronics (which slowed down the music’s momentum), often concentrating as much on turning dials as he did coming up with ideas. But when he switched to his acoustic cornet, he played at the high level of the other musicians.
Vijay Iyer, who played piano during his solos and often switched to an electric keyboard for the ensembles, was not featured any more than his sidemen. None of the melodies or themes that he contributed was particularly memorable; so many jazz artists these days are much better soloists than they are composers. His unpredictable and thought-provoking music did hold one’s interest due to the colorful individual voices and the way that the musicians interacted during the ensembles but I would have preferred to hear some stronger themes and more of an emphasis on Iyer’s own piano playing.
During the past year, Maryanne Reall has performed her “The Lighter Side Of Lady Day” once a month at the Gardenia. With the assistance of pianist Andy Langham, guitarist Mitchell Long and bassist Edwin Livingston, Ms. Reall sings swing standards that are mostly from the earlier part of Billie Holiday’s career along with an occasional departure.
At the recent performance that I attended, she did a good job with such songs as “I Wish You Love” (sung in both French and English), “The Blues Are Brewing,” “Sugar” (the 1930s standard, not the Stanley Turrentine hit) which had her scatting well for a half-chorus, “That Ole Devil Called Love,” “P.S. I Love You,” “La Vie En Rose,” “These Foolish Things,” and “Stars Fell On Alabama.” With Long (who was showcased on “That Old Feeling”) and Langham contributing short solos throughout the night, Maryanne Reall’s sincere and sweet vocals were well supported and swinging. It made for a fun evening.
An excellent stride and classic jazz pianist, Ted des Plantes has appeared on over 40 recording sessions through the years, as a leader (most notably for the Stomp Off label) and with Chicago Rhythm, Bob Helm, trumpeter Bobby Guyer, the Rent Party Revellers, and Dave Greer’s Classic Jazz Stompers. Recently he started his own TdP label to put out unreleased sessions and to reissue long elusive music from the Stomp Off catalog. Des Plantes has thus far released six CDs. Three are covered here (all comprised of music not previously available) and the remainder will be reviewed in a future issue.
Vol. 1 – Early On starts out with some intriguing sessions. Des Plantes originally played tuba, trumpet and drums before settling on piano. He is heard on the former two instruments during the first 11 of the 18 selections on this CD which date from 1973-75 and were recorded in Southern California. Since des Plantes only officially recorded four songs (from a 1973 set) before emerging on records in 1981 as a fine pianist, these performances are historic. Adding to their value is that they feature trombonist Dan Barrett at the beginning of his career and have some solid contributions by trumpeter Brian Shaw and pianist Robbie Rhodes although the reed playing is a bit erratic and sometimes out of tune. Still, the spirit of the musicians generally overrides the technical faults. The final seven numbers on Vol. 1, which are from 1986-92, are on a higher level with fine playing by cornetist Carl Halen, clarinetist Frank Powers, and des Plantes on piano including two unaccompanied piano solos from 1992.
From Then Til Now Vol. 2 has des Plantes (heard exclusively on piano) sitting in with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band for two lengthy numbers in 1982 (including a very heated “Shimmy Sha Wabble”), and working during 1995-2013 with such notables as clarinetist Powers, cornetists Jeff Hughes and Leon Oakley, altoist Bob Helm, clarinetist Eric Greiffenhagen, Dave Greer’s Classic Jazz Stompers, and Les Rois Du Fox Trot. Highlights include “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” and “Heroic Stomp.” In addition, des Plantes (sometimes overdubbing on drums and tuba) is showcased on piano during several numbers with an uptempo “My Buddy” (which is without the overdubs) being particularly memorable. While he is modest about his own piano playing, Ted des Plantes proves here and elsewhere that he is actually quite masterful.
The gem of the trio of releases is Chicago Rhythm’s Live 1981-1987. Comprised of Frank Powers on clarinet and tenor, John Otto on clarinet, alto and bass sax, banjoist Jack Mellahn, drummer Hal Smith and either Louise Anderson on tuba or Vince Giordano on tuba, bass and bass sax plus des Plantes, Chicago Rhythm recorded five albums for Stomp Off and Jazzology during the 1980s. Originally designed as a band that paid tribute to Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra (a group from 1928 that had a frontline of clarinet and alto), Chicago Rhythm evolved within its brand of 1920s jazz, generating plenty of excitement. The impressive musicianship and interplay between the two reeds gave the group its own personality and put it on the level of Soprano Summit. Live 1981-1987 equals and possibly exceeds the high level of the sextet’s studio recordings. Drawn from the band’s first live performance in 1981, a version of “Oh Baby” from the mid-1980s that features the Powers-Des Plantes-Smith trio, and two dates from 1987, this highly recommended CD includes hot versions of such numbers as “I Know That You Know,” “He’s The Last Word,” “I Would Do Anything For You,” “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and