by Scott Yanow
Back in 1970, tenor-saxophonist Billy Harper was a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and recorded with Lee Morgan. Pianist George Cables recorded with Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw. Trumpeter Eddie Henderson and drummer Billy Hart were members of the Herbie Hancock Sextet (arguably Hancock’s greatest band) while bassist Cecil McBee recorded with Charles Tolliver, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Simmons and Wayne Shorter.. 50 years later, those five musicians are still playing at the peak of their powers. With altoist Donald Harrison (a comparative youngster who did not emerge with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers until 1982) and trumpeter David Weiss, who started to get noticed in 1995, they form the Cookers, arguably the finest working jazz group around today.
David Weiss formed the band (which originally included altoist Craig Handy who was succeeded by Harrison in 2013) a decade ago. His feat in keeping the group together with only one personnel change for a decade is almost as remarkable as the fact that five of its members were major jazz giants 50 years ago.
At the Moss Theater at a memorable concert sponsored by Ruth Price and the Jazz Bakery, the Cookers lived up to their name. They began with “The Call Of The Wild & The Peaceful Heart,” a modal piece featuring passionate solos by Harper, Weiss and Cables. The pianist’s “Blackfoot” gave the inventive Henderson an opportunity to show that he can still hit high notes very well Harrison also sounded fine on that piece, quoting “Fascinating Rhythm” and displaying his attractive tone. Harper’s “Croquet Ballet” had the horns playing explosive riffs behind each other’s solos and “If One Could Only See” was a ballad feature for Henderson.” The mutual admiration and respect that the musicians showed towards each other, often smiling while listening to the soloists, was heartwarming. Freddie Hubbard’s “The Core” had the highpoint of the night, an outstanding and at times astounding drum solo by Hart that was filled with original ideas and shifting polyrhythms.
Even if one does not think about the ages of Billy Harper (77), Eddie Henderson (79), George Cables (75), Billy Hart (79), and Cecil McBee (84), this would have been considered a great concert. But when one considers their age and their continuous creativity, the music was quite miraculous.
Catherine Russell, one of the top swing singers of this time period, took some time to become a solo jazz singer. The daughter of pianist Luis Russell (who led one of the great bands of the 1929-34 period) and bassist-guitarist-singer Carline Ray, Catherine worked as a backup singer behind many top pop vocalists, appearing on over 200 albums. In 2006 she began to change directions, exploring her father’s music and songs from the 1920s, ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s in a jazz setting. She has had great success ever since, recording seven albums (most recently Alone Together) and performing throughout the U.S. and Europe.
At Santa Monica’s Broad Stage, Ms. Russell was joined by her regular quartet: guitarist Matt Munisteri (her musical director), pianist Mark Shane, bassist Tal Ronen, and drummer Mark McLean. While one sometimes missed the horn players heard on her last album, she put on quite an entertaining show filled with superior material, swinging performances, and witty comments between songs.
Among the highlights were her father’s “At The Swing Cat’s Ball,” “You’re Not The Only Oyster In the Stew,” a medium-tempo “Alone Together,” “Early In The Morning,” “Do I Remember,” a particularly inspired “When Did You Leave Heaven,” “Send For Me,” “You Can’t Pull The Wool Over My Eyes,” 1922’s “He May Be Your Dog But He’s Wearing My Collar,” “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Make It Last,” “I’m An Errand Girl For Rhythm,” “Aged And Mellow,” and “Harlem On My Mind”; who else would close their show with the latter song?
On many of the tunes Munisteri and Shane split a solo chorus between Catherine Russell’s vocals. I wish they could have stretched out a bit more since they are both excellent soloists. However the singer was in delightful form throughout. When the audience did not want to let her go, she sang “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” as an encore and, on a medium-tempo blues, scatted her way offstage to great applause. Hopefully she will return to Los Angeles again soon.
And then, after seeing the Cookers one night and Catherine Russell the next, it all stopped, at least for now.
JAZZ ORACLE ACQUIRED BY UPBEAT
Upbeat (www.upbeatmailorder.co.uk) from England has long been a major company in recording trad, New Orleans and swing sessions by British, American and European artists in addition to making available many sets of vintage recordings. In recent times, Upbeat acquired the late Bill Bissonette’s Jazz Crusade label and the smaller Dynamite company. In addition, they recently bought the Jazz Oracle label which had come out with 71 consistently rewarding compilations of recordings mostly from the 1920s and early ‘30s. Jazz Oracle was always high-class, reissuing often obscure but always rewarding recordings with superior packaging, comprehensive liner notes, and the best possible sound quality. Four of the CDs are covered in this article.
While those exploring 1920s jazz should begin with the classic recordings of Louis Armstrong’s Five and Seven, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Fletcher Henderson, early Duke Ellington and the other innovators, there is also much of value to be heard in the performances of the lesser-known and now-forgotten musicians of the era.
The Edison and Paramount labels were never considered major jazz record companies yet both captured some rewarding sessions. Thomas Edison, who originally thought that when he invented his recording devices, they would primarily be used for dictation in offices, never had the greatest taste in music. He preferred sentimental ballads and was very slow to warm up to jazz. He also was the last holdout in releasing recordings as cylinders rather than 78s although he eventually relented and did both. By the mid-1920s, with the popularity of jazz and hot dance music, he gave in and Edison began releasing numerous jazz-inspired recordings. Jazz Oracle reissued the music of three of the best bands to record extensively for the label as Edison Hot Dance Obscurities Volume 1 & 2. Unlike the other labels, Edison’s 78s often held around 4 minutes of music per performance rather than the usual three.
Volume 1 has 13 performances (five of which were previously unreleased test pressings) by banjoist Frank Winegar’s Penn Boys, leaving out just seven weaker selections from his discography, mostly alternate takes that were released on a Sunbeam Lp. Inspired by Paul Whiteman, Bix Beiderbecke and Red Nichols, Winegar’s 12-piece group (which does not include any famous names) is heard in fine form on such numbers as “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down,” “Stay Out Of The South,” “Ida” and “My Gal Sal.” The remainder of Vol. 1 features B.A. Rolfe and his Palais D’Or Orchestra. Despite its title, trumpeter Rolfe’s band was from New York. While Rolfe was praised for his command of his upper register by Louis Armstrong (who said that his version of “When You’re Smiling” was inspired by Rolfe), unfortunately the trumpeter never seemed to have displayed that aspect of his artistry on records. Most of his recordings were fairly straight dance band performances but six of his most jazz-oriented sides are on this CD. Rolfe takes credible solos, his band’s musicianship is excellent, and their versions of such numbers as “Buffalo Rhythm,” “Louisiana Bo Bo” and “No Parking” are quite enjoyable and sometimes hot.
Volume 2 in the Edison series focuses on Oreste and his Queensland Orchestra. Oreste Migliaccio was a pianist who led a regularly working 9-10 piece band during 1926-30 before slipping away into obscurity. His orchestra recorded 30 titles for the Edison label, 19 of which are on this CD. Altoist-clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey and Joe Tarto on tuba are the best-known sidemen although cornetist Red Nichols and clarinetist Don Murray might be on a few titles. The performances included on this CD are excellent examples of hot dance music (even with the dated vocals) with “I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover,” “Rosy Cheeks,” “She’s Got It,” “Lila,” and “Borneo” being among the highpoints.
The Paramount label is primarily remembered today both for its superior documentation of 1920s blues performers and for its often-inferior sound quality. However Paramount also recorded a variety of dance bands at their Chicago and Grafton, Wisconsin studios during 1926-32. Three CDs were released by Jazz Oracle in their Paramount Hot Dance Obscurities series. I do not have the third volume but the first two volumes are covered here.
Volume 1 starts out with “Blue River” by the unknown group Zakie Moore’s Illy-Noisy Seven (the results are much better than one might expect from the band’s name) and then most of the other two dozen performances have a connection with banjoist-guitarist-bandleader Bill Hadi. Included are sessions by Bill Hasid’s Cubs, the Black Pirates, and the Midnight Serenaders. Once again there are no name musicians but this program, which includes such titles as “Lonely Little Bluebird,” “Hold Everything, Here Comes My Gal,” “Where The Shy Little Violets Grow,” and “Weary Weasel” (which is really “Tiger Rag”) gives one a good idea about the style and joy to be heard in 1920s hot dance music.
Volume 2 of the Paramount Hot Dance Obscurities has a real cross section of long-forgotten recording groups, many with unidentified personnel. Featured are the Checker Box Boys, the Wisconsin U. Skyrockets, Billy Sennett’s Carolina Stompers, Bud Speight’s Harmony Kings, Lipetsk’s Midnight Serenaders, Isa Fountain’s Ambassadors, and orchestras led by Joe Gum, Glen Lite, Aaron Steel, Bob Hartman, Doc Wilson, Art Krueger, Sig Heller, Smyth-West, and Bill Carlson. 21 of the 26 songs are also long forgotten but many are rewarding and good examples of the type of jazz that was hot, danceable and melodic, fitting well into the modern mainstream of the era.
Fans of 1920s jazz should be inspired not only to acquire these CDs of rarities but to explore Upbeat’s large catalog and particularly their Jazz Oracle releases.
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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Be well and safe everyone. The live jazz scene will return.