Searching For Secret Heroes
In the summer of 1962 Samuel B. Charters (1929-2015), an influential musicologist, historian, author and record producer who had already been responsible for several early blues artists being rediscovered, and his wife the notable photographer and writer Ann Charters, filmed and recorded seven blues artists for The Blues. While a handful of blues artists had appeared on film earlier, this was the first film that was specifically made to document veteran blues performers. Just 20 minutes long, it gave those fortunate enough to view it the rare chance to see J.D. Short, Pink Anderson, Furry Lewis, Baby Tate, Gus Cannon, Memphis Willie B. and Sleepy John Estes. Only six copies of the film were made and it was never commercially released although a soundtrack album came out years later.
In 2012 purely by accident, the co-owners of Document (the #1 label in reissuing vintage blues) met Sam Charters. Gary Atkinson asked him about the film and Charters said that he had misplaced his copy for years but had just found it a week ago. A year later when both of the Charters visited Document’s offices, they were extensively interviewed by Atkinson who helped them greatly improve the technical quality of the priceless film. Seven years later, it is finally available for the first time.
Searching For Secret Heroes, a DVD and CD, was recently released by Document. It can easily be divided into three parts. The DVD starts with the 57-minute interview of Sam and Ann Charters. They discuss their early immersion in the blues, Sam Charters’ unsuccessful effort in 1954 to find Blind Willie Johnson (who had already passed away), the resulting interview with his widow, and the background behind The Blues. Ann Charters remembers, “I was raring to go as part of his crew. In fact, I was his crew.” While they had little money, acquiring a movie camera in a pawn shop, their determination resulted in the film becoming reality. Sam Charters talks about each of the artists and what their situations were at the time, and they remember the joy that they felt when they saw the completed film for the first time.
The DVD also includes the actual 20-minute film. Baby Tate on harmonica is heard behind frequent signs of discrimination, segregation and poverty which give one a slight idea what life was like for African-Americans in the South in 1962. Each of the subjects gets to perform for around two minutes. J.D. Short performs as a one-man band on guitar, harmonica, bass drum and vocal. Pink Anderson shows his six-year old son how to play guitar and they perform together. Furry Lewis is briefly seen at his day job as a street sweeper before performing a strong number; he would soon be successful enough to return to music fulltime. Baby Tate performs a song as does Memphis Willie B. with Gus Cannon. Most memorable is seeing the great Sleepy John Estes on the front porch of his rundown shack with his family. Long forgotten, he was blind and had spent most of his life living in poverty but showed that he could still play and sing. Happily Estes would soon be having a comeback and touring Europe.
The CD includes the performances from the original soundtrack album by the artists plus historic recordings by Blind Willie Johnson, J.D. Short, Pink Anderson, Furry Lewis, Gus Cannon, Sleepy John Estes, and Henry Townsend. Townsend was originally going to be in the film but did not make the cut. Fortunately his audio contributions were saved so one gets to hear two performances and three interview excerpts including him talking about meeting Robert Johnson and discussing what the blues means to him.
Search For Secret Heroes is a must for anyone interested in country blues. It is available, along with hundreds of vintage blues CDs from www.thedocumentrecordsstore.com.
The Complete Piano Duets
Ella Fitzgerald was heard in many different settings through the years, most frequently with a trio, an all-star group, or accompanied by a large orchestra or big band. While she recorded a series of mostly-excellent duet albums with guitarist Joe Pass in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a rare occasion when she was accompanied by just a pianist.
For this two-CD set, Verve has collected together all of Ella’s piano duet recordings, most of which were originally released on four albums. In 1950 the singer recorded her first songbook album or Decca, Ella Sings Gershwin, which preceded the beginning of her acclaimed songbook series by six years. Accompanied by the always-tasteful Ellis Larkins who had the ability to play the perfect chord at the perfect time, Fitzgerald performs eight songs by George Gershwin (the set was originally a ten-inch Lp) with joy and swing. 1954’s Songs In A Mellow Mood was a follow-up, featuring a dozen more songs with Larkins but this time from a variety of composers. Highlights of the two sets include “How Long Has This Been Going On,” “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” “What Is There To Say,” and “Imagination.”
In 1960 Ella had an acting and singing role in the underrated film Let No Man Write My Epitaph. While she recorded 13 mostly slow and moody ballads for the film, only three songs were actually used in the movie. All 13, which match her with Paul Smith (her regular pianist of the time) are here including surprisingly dark and quietly emotional versions of such songs as “My Melancholy Baby,” “Who’s Sorry Now” and “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.”
In 1975, Ella Fitzgerald recorded an album with Oscar Peterson that had bassist Ray Brown on half of the selections. The five duets with Peterson (plus two alternate takes) conclude this twofer and find Ella sometimes sounding playful and scatting a bit. In addition, the twofer includes two duet numbers from her late 1950s songbooks (“Miss Otis Regrets” and “Lush Life”) and a 1964 rendition of “Somewhere In The Night” from a 1964 concert with Tommy Flanagan.
While thought of as a joyful and swinging singer, The Complete Piano Duets, which features Ella Fitzgerald at her most intimate, lets one discover that she was also a greatly underrated interpreter of ballads. It is available from www.universalmusic.com.
Unsung – Randy Porter Plays Dave Frishberg
Dave Frishberg is famous as a songwriter who writes lyrics that are both humorous and insightful, and as a swing-oriented jazz pianist. His original compositions have uplifted the repertoire of many singers, but on Unsung pianist Randy Porter decided to do something different.
Porter, who is based in Oregon, has worked with such notables as Charles McPherson, Freddie Hubbard, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Diane Schuur, Karrin Allyson, and Rebecca Kilgore in addition to leading his own groups. For his Dave Frishberg tribute, he has become the first musician to record a full instrumental set of Frishberg compositions.
The well-titled Unsung has a dozen of Frishberg’s better songs, most of which are closely identified with singers. How often does one hear instrumental versions of “I’m Hip,” “I Want To Be A Sideman” (which is a real swinger), “You Are There,” “The Dear Departed Past,” and “Peel Me A Grape?” Porter, with bassist John Witala and drummer Todd Strait, shows that these songs not only have memorable lyrics but viable melodies and chord changes too, performing them as modern jazz compositions.
It all works well, making the surprising Unsung (available from www.randyporter.com) an easily recommended acquisition.
Naomi & Her Handsome Devils
Live At The Uptown Swingout
A swing dancing champion and a solid singer, Naomi Uyama a few years ago organized her “Handsome Devils,” a three-horn four-rhythm septet. 2019’s Live At The Uptown Swingout is their third CD.
The group is comprised of the singer-leader, trumpeter Gordon Au, trombonist Charlie Halloran, Jonathan Doyle on tenor and other reeds, pianist Dalton Ridenhour, guitarist Jake Sanders, bassist Jared Engel, and drummer Josh Collazo. The instrumentalists contribute concise and colorful solos (Doyle often takes honors), riff-filled ensembles, and plenty of excitement at (not too surprisingly) danceable tempos. Naomi’s singing fits right in and she often sounds like one of the gang rather than a dominant leader.
Other than an original medium-tempo blues “Gone So Long,” the country song “Boot Head Drag,” and the Savoy Sultans’ “Wishing And Crying For You,” the repertoire on this spirited live set is comprised of famous standards. However the arrangements are fresh (rather than being copies of earlier records) and the musicians all sound inspired by the music and the audience. Among the highlights are stirring versions of “Sweet Sue,” “L-O-V-E” (which becomes a sing-along), “Heartaches,” “I’m Crazy About My Baby,” and a heated and exciting version of “Dinah.”
If you love swing, then this CD (available from www.naomisdevils.com) is certainly for you.
Live In Foix
Tcha Limberger, who is blind, started out as a guitarist, added the clarinet, and did not take up the violin until he was already 17. Within a few years he was a masterful violinist and on his way to becoming one of the leaders in the Gypsy Swing movement. His trio with rhythm guitarist Dave Kelbie (who founded and runs the important Lejazzetal label) and bassist Sebastien Girardot has had strong success.
For this 2015 concert, the Tcha Limberger Trio is joined by the Dutch gypsy guitarist Mozes Rosenberg who is the younger brother of guitarist Stochelo Rosenberg, the influential leader of the Rosenberg Trio. The quartet performs swing standards and a couple of Django Reinhardt songs, swinging hard and playing creatively within the idiom.
On such numbers as “My Blue Heaven,” “Avalon,” “Topsy,” and “Some Of These Days,” the quartet is often blazing. While touched by the inspiration of Stephane Grappelli, Limberger does not overly emulate him and has his own sound; the same can be said for Rosenberg’s musical relationship with Django. They are close enough to the tradition so their playing will greatly interest fans of Reinhardt and Grappelli yet they never copy the greats and instead have forged their own path within swinging jazz.
The results are quite enjoyable and available along with a couple of dozen other excellent swinging jazz releases from the Lejazzetal label (www.lejazzetal.com).
The Piano Equation
Throughout his career, pianist Matthew Shipp has created his own vision in the world of avant-garde or simply adventurous jazz. At his freest, he retains a lyricism that makes his improvisations sound like a logical if unpredictable conversation rather than being merely sound explorations.
The Piano Equation, a set of 11 originals, is one of his more accessible solo outings. It is not that Shipp has simplified his music or created catchy and singable melodies although there is a singable quality to some of his playing. It is that he lets the music breathe, makes creative use of space and dynamics, and is not shy to play gentle passages or even hint briefly at earlier styles such as (for a few moments) Horace Silver on “Clown Pulse.”
Some of the music (such as the repetitive “Radio Signals Equation”) is more forbidding and Shipp never coasts or plays the predictable. But taken as a whole, The Piano Equation is an excellent place to begin in exploring the prolific Matthew Shipp’s music. It is available from www.aumfidelity.com/TAO01.htm.
Roberto Magris Sextet
Born and raised in Italy, pianist Roberto Magris has been recording high-quality jazz albums since the 1980s, most of which have been readily available in the U.S. He has a modern mainstream style, swinging in his own bop-inspired voice, and has often collaborated with American artists.
Sun Stone, which was recorded in 2017, features Magris in a sextet that also includes the great veteran Ira Sullivan on flute, alto and soprano, trumpeter Shareef Clayton, tenor-saxophonist Mark Colby, bassist Jamie Ousley, and drummer Rodolfo Zuniga. They perform six of the pianist’s originals plus a jazz version of the Italian pop song “Innamorati A Milano.”
The set has a fair amount of variety including a modal jazz waltz (“Sun Stone”) that features Colby’s muscular tenor, the medium-tempo ballad “Planet Of Love” (which includes some excellent Sullivan flute), the minor-toned “Maliblues,” and “Beauty Is Forever” which has a particularly attractive melody and is the most bop-oriented of the performances. Each of the horn players have their opportunities to take fine solos with Ira Sullivan at 86 still sounding in excellent form on each of his horns even if he does not play trumpet on this project.
Magris, who sometimes recalls McCoy Tyner on the more modal pieces, is consistently inventive whether soloing or inspiring the other musicians, playing with plenty of energy and joy. He really sounds like he is enjoying himself, particularly on the more rollicking pieces, and can be proud of how this excellent set turned out. Sun Stone is recommended and available from www.jmoodrecords.com.
Lee Konitz Nonet
Old Songs New
Lee Konitz (1927-2020) had a remarkably long and productive career. The altoist made his first recording on Sept. 4, 1947 with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Old Songs New, recorded during Oct. 21-22, 2017 (70 years later) and recently released may have been his last. Konitz had just turned 90 but he was still in his playing prime. Both his distinctive sound and his creativity had not declined.
For this project his longtime associate, tenor-saxophonist Ohad Talmor, wrote colorful and inspiring arrangements for a group consisting of flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, two cellos, bass, and drums. They perform six of Konitz’s favorite standards plus his own “Kary’s Trance” (based on “What Is This Thing Called Love”). As with Stan Getz’s classic Focus album, the orchestral arrangements are complete by themselves and nothing was written for the leader. Konitz was free to improvise anything he thought of on top of the orchestra.
By coincidence, one of the songs is “Goodbye” which was the very last song that tenor-saxophonist Gene Ammons recorded on his final recording although in this case “Goodbye” leads off the set. Lee Konitz also interprets such tunes as “Foolin’ Myself,” “I Cover The Waterfront,” and “You Go To My Head” with sensitivity and inventive ideas. The arrangements (which occasionally recall Gil Evans) are modern and lightly swinging with the emphasis on low-register colors which contrast with Konitz’s alto. The only reservation that I have is that the tempos are all fairly slow; it would have been nice to hear Konitz being challenged on an uptempo romp. The otherwise worthy set concludes with “Trio Blues,” a chance for the altoist to stretch out with just the backing of bassist Christopher Tordini and drummer George Schuller.
If this is Lee Konitz’s final recording, then he certainly exited on a high note. Old Songs New is highly recommended and available from www.sunnysiderecords.com.
(Twenty Two Productions)
Beautiful Souvenirs is the long overdue recording debut of Bidi Dworkin. She was a folk singer-guitarist while going to school, performing at festivals and coffee houses in the Rhode Island area. She spent time living in New York as a modern dancer, settled in Vermont, and has since worked as a teacher, an interim cantor, and a yoga teacher. She always sang and loved jazz but only recently has been pursuing it on a more serious level.
On Beautiful Souvenirs, Bidi Dworkin is joined by pianist Eric Hangen, bassist Steve Cody, and drummer Claire Arenius. Other than Joni Mitchell’s “Morning Morgantown” (which she used to sing earlier in life), her repertoire is comprised of veteran jazz standards, all of which she manages to make her own. Ms. Dworkin has a warm and distinctive voice, is not shy to take chances including taking much of a medium-tempo “Alone Together” as a duet with bassist Cody, scats well, digs into the lyrics of many of the songs, and always swings. Among the highlights are a haunting “How My Heart Sings,” “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise,” “Why Try To Change Me Now,” “Crazy He Calls Me,” and a surprisingly cooking rendition of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
Beautiful Souvenirs, which is available from www.bididworkin.com, is a fine debut which makes one look forward to an encore by Bidi Dworkin.
Happy Birthday Django 110
When Django Reinhardt passed away in 1953, very few guitarists showed his influence. He had developed too virtuosic and personal a style for others to easily copy so most up-and-coming guitarists looked towards Charlie Christian instead. But three decades later, a musical renaissance started and since then scores of guitarists have adopted the Django “Gypsy Swing” style as a starting point for their music.
Wawau Adler, who is 53, is a guitarist from Germany who, like Reinhardt, came from a Gypsy family. He began playing the guitar when he was nine, first gave a concert four years later, and has led several albums since 1991. Although his first recording was bop-oriented, during the past 20 years he has developed into one of the top gypsy swing guitarist, performing throughout Europe. In 2010 he recorded Here’s To Django as a tribute to Reinhardt upon the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Ten years later, it is time for Happy Birthday Django 110. Adler is joined by the young Belgian violinist Alexandre Cavaliere (who sometimes sounds close to Stephane Grappelli and had lessons from the late Didier Lockwood), rhythm guitarist Hono Winterstein, and bassist Joel Locher. They perform four Django compositions (“Twelfth Year,” “Duke And Dukie,” “Melodie Au Crepuscule,” and “Django’s Tiger” which is based on “Tiger Rag”), seven swing standards, one obscurity (“Lune De Miel”), and one song (Michel Legrand’s “I Will Wait For You”) that was written after Reinhardt’s era.
The quartet brings back the sound of the Quintet of the Hot Club Of France and plays a similar repertoire but without copying the Reinhardt and Grappelli solos. Wawau Adler is a fluent and creative swing guitarist who simultaneously pays tribute to Django and is creative within the rich tradition. It is a delight to hear him and his group on such songs as “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” “My Blue Heaven,” “My Melancholy Baby,” and “The Man I Love.”
Anyone who enjoys Gypsy Swing and the music of Django Reinhardt will certainly enjoy this fine effort which is available from www.glm.de.
On The Shoulders Of Giants
A talented arranger who normally plays alto, Chris Byars moves to tenor on his latest Steeplechase recording. He utilizes the unusual instrumentation of alto, tenor, bass clarinet, trombone, bass, and drums to achieve an ensemble sound that will remind some of Gerry Mulligan’s groups of the 1950s despite the lack of both a baritone-sax and a trumpet. Since there is no piano or guitar, Byars has written extensive arrangements that have the horns constantly playing behind the soloists, often sounding a bit like a big band while keeping the music from merely being a string of solos.
Byars, altoist Zaid Nasser, bass clarinetist Stefano Doglioni, trombonist John Mosca, bassist Ari Roland, and drummer Phil Stewart perform eight of the leader’s originals and Tommy Turrentine’s “Big Red.” Everyone has opportunities to shine in their solos yet the arranged ensembles that accompany them are often just as noteworthy. The music swings as if it were 1960 (even though some of the harmonies are more modern) without ever becoming predictable.
Everything works well on this excellent project, available from www.statesidemusic.com
Yes, No, Next
Corinne Mammana is a versatile singer with an expressive and fetching voice. Her musical interests, based on the music of her debut CD Yes, No, Next, are pretty wide yet she sounds comfortable in each area. Originally from Philadelphia, she is classically trained and has had extensive experience performing in musical theater. After Ms. Mammana discovered her love for jazz, she recorded an EP (Under An August Moon) in 2016 and performed at many New York venues.
On Yes, No, Next, the singer is joined by pianist-keyboardist Sean Gough, veteran bassist Gene Perla, drummer Ian Froman, and occasionally Lorenzo Branca on flute and harmonica. The repertoire ranges from “Blue Skies” and “The Best Is Yet To Come,” to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ballad “Music Of The Night,” the excellent jazz waltz “In Need Of A Good Night’s Sleep,” and the Cure’s “Lovesome” (definitely an offbeat choice). Particularly rewarding is a medley of “Smile” (taken slow) and a joyfully swinging “Put On A Happy Face.”
Corinne Mammana’s attractive voice and the excellent musicianship of her sidemen make Yes, No, Next an enjoyable listen. She displays definite potential. Her CD is available from www.corinnemusic.com.
I Don’t Know Anything
Louis Rosen is certainly a multi-talented individual. He is a composer, singer-guitarist, author, and lyricist, writing for the theater and stage. He learned important lessons directly from both Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. In the past he has had projects in which he put the poems of major African-American poets (including Langston Hughes) to music.
I Don’t Know Anything, which is subtitled An Album In Three Acts, has 16 pieces that are entirely Rosen’s music and lyrics (other than two songs that he co-wrote with Arthur Perlman). The composer is featured as a singer and acoustic guitarist, joined by guitarist David Mansfield, a rhythm section, a few strings, and occasional horns.
While the music is programmed in three acts, there is not one dominant theme to the lyrics so it does not really function as a play. Instead, the individual pieces shine by themselves, with the music ranging from the swinging “Guru, Please Tell Me” to folk music, a bit of country, and classical.
The lyrics include such topics as taking chances and stretching oneself (“Before The Window Closes”), knowing that the longer one lives, the less one knows (“I Don’t Know Anything”), wondering about the mysteries of life (“Guru, Please Tell Me”), a light-hearted look at the joy of growing old (“My Third Act”), and having a sweet dream interrupted by a nothing phone call (“Unknown Name, Unknown Number”).
While the music is largely outside of jazz, Louis Rosen’s philosophical lyrics and the high-quality playing by his sidemen make I Don’t Know Anything worth hearing by those who are open to other genres of music. It is available from www.louisrosen.com.