by Scott Yanow
In the 1990s, starting with the Royal Crown Revue (which was formed in 1989), many new groups played what was called Retro Swing. They brought back swing music in a different way, combining together the 1930s/40s style with early r&b, jump music, touches of mid-1950s rock and roll, and dashes of Louis Prima and Louis Jordan. The Retro Swing bands performed for young dancing audiences and generated headlines and strong selling recordings for a few years. Over time the faddish elements of Retro Swing faded away as did many of the groups, the mainstream press, and some of the audience. However the best music lived on and showed that jazz can indeed be danced to and gain a large crowd if played with spirit, a solid rhythm, and a sense of fun.
One of the few groups that have survived all of these decades is Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Formed in 1991 as a trio, by 1994 they had grown in size, developed their own sound, and made their first recording. At the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, the band put on their 20th annual Christmas show that, in addition to their versions of a few Yuletide favorites, included some of their more popular numbers. The nine-piece group consists of singer-guitarist Scotty Morris, trumpeters Glen Marhevka and Mitch Cooper, trombonist Alex Henderson, tenor-saxophonist Karl Hunter, baritonist Andy Rowley, pianist Joshua Levy, bassist Dirk Shumaker, and drummer Kurt Sodergren,
The night started off with a rollicking uptempo blues filled with quotes from Xmas songs and impressive high-note trumpet playing from Cooper, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” with the band riffing on the latter recalling “the big beat” style of 1956-57. BBVD switched gears and next performed their trademark song “You And Me And The Bottle Make Three Tonight.” Other numbers included the joyful “I Wanna Be Just Like You,” the Charles Brown blues “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Minnie The Moocher,” a Dixieland ensemble that became “Frosty The Snowman,” “It’s Christmas Time In Tinsel Town Again,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Christmas Is Starting Now,” “’Zat You Santa Claus,” a version of “We Three Kings” played by the horns a capella, and an uptempo closer.
Scotty Morris sang most of the songs and was a genial and humorous emcee. All of the horn players and pianist Levy proved to be excellent soloists and the band’s rousing ensembles were full of exuberance although I wish that there were some longer individual spots along the way. After all of these decades, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy showed that they still know how to put on a very enjoyable show.
A NEW ERIC DOLPHY BOOK
Eric Dolphy (1928-64) accomplished a great deal during his short life, particularly when one considers that his prime period (1960-64) lasted a little more than four years. He developed his own very original style and distinctive sounds on three different instruments (alto, bass clarinet and flute), made major contributions to the music of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, and recorded a series of inventive albums that led the way from hard bop to free jazz.
The only previous biography on Dolphy that was in English is a work from 1996 (Eric Dolphy: A Musical Biography and Discography) by Vladimir Simosko and Barry Tepperman.
Guillaume Belhomme’s Eric Dolphy was published in German in 2018, in French in 2022, and is now available in English. It is a thin book, just 112 pages, and there are times when the translation is a bit faulty with obvious grammatical errors, but it is quite readable. Belhomme’s book (available from www.amazon.com), which includes some photos, a discography, bibliography, and filmography, serves as an excellent if brief introduction to Dolphy’s life and career. It quickly covers Dolphy’s early years, his period (1958-59) as a member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, his associations with Coltrane, Mingus, Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Booker Little, his sessions as a leader and his many side projects. The work could have easily been twice as long (nothing is said about Dolphy’s playing on Mingus’ “Folk Forms No. 1” or Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments”). But this easily recommended introduction to Eric Dolphy does discuss most of the highpoints and events of his life, making the case for Dolphy being thought of as a transitional figure between straight ahead jazz and the avant-garde.
When one thinks of Johnny Hartman (1923-83), it is of the singer’s classic 1963 recording with John Coltrane (highlighted by the definitive “Lush Life”) and perhaps of his two other excellent Impulse albums (I Just Dropped By To Say Hello and The Voice That Is. However Hartman had been recording on an occasional basis for 15 years before the Coltrane session.
Smooth & Swinging (Acrobat) is a fine two-CD set that includes many of the highpoints of Hartman’s recordings of 1947-58. A warm ballad singer with a deep voice, he was often marketed as a jazz vocalist to his detriment and he failed to have any hits during the 1950s when he should have fit comfortably into the middle-of-the-road pop field.
The 51 selections chosen for this sampler features Johnny Hartman on two songs with the Earl Hines Orchestra and four numbers from when he was a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band (an association that always sounded a bit uncomfortable) but otherwise he is heard as a leader. 1947’s “Why Was I Born” shows that Hartman already his sound together early in his career, four songs with Erroll Garner in 1949 are rewarding, and an unlikely matchup with Perez Prado on “Wild” works out well.
In addition to some of his earliest titles (including dates for Savoy and some lesser-known singles), much of Smooth & Swinging draws its material from three Hartman albums dating from 1955-58: Songs From The Heart (a quartet outing with trumpeter Howard McGhee), All Of Me (split between a lush orchestra and a big band date headed by Ernie Wilkins) and the orchestral set And I Thought About You. Johnny Hartman sounds fine on the ballad-oriented material although none of these albums sold that well and he was off records completely during 1959-62 before teaming up with John Coltrane. Johnny Hartman deserved better. Smooth & Swinging (available from www.amazon.com and www.mvdb2b.com) shows how strong and sensitive a ballad singer he was during the first part of his career.
CLASSIC LES MCCANN
Les McCann, who was born in 1955 in Lexington, Kentucky, was mostly self-taught as a pianist. In the 1950s he won a singing contest that resulted in him appearing on the Ed Sullivan
Show. After serving in the Navy, in 1959 McCann formed a trio that for years was based on the West Coast. That same year he signed with the Pacific Jazz label and started recording a series of popular albums.
A soul jazz pianist in the vein of Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons but with his own musical personality, McCann was primarily known as an instrumentalist until the late 1960s. In fact, his first vocal album (from 1961) was called Les McCann Sings so audiences would know that it was not an instrumental record. Even on his famous Swiss Movement album with tenor-saxophonist Eddie Harris from the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival, McCann only took one vocal. However the success of that song (“Compared To What”) led to him emphasizing his singing from then on while still being a viable pianist and electric keyboardist.
The four CD set called Les McCann – The Pacific Jazz Collection (Enlightenment) is an inexpensive way of acquiring a great deal of McCann’s early recordings of 1960–63. Eight albums are reissued in full: four trio records (Plays The Truth, Plays The Shout, Les McCann Ltd. In San Francisco, and Pretty Lady), Les McCann Sings (with a large orchestra), Somethin’ Special (a quintet set with organist Richard “Groove” Holmes and guitarist Joe Pass), On Time (his trio plus Joe Pass), and Jazz Waltz (recorded with the Jazz Crusaders).
There were other trio albums for Pacific Jazz during this time (most notably
New From The Big City and The Shampoo) but the Enlightenment set gives listeners many fine examples of early Les McCann during a period when he was influential in infusing straight ahead jazz with blues, gospel and r&bish ideas. It is available from www.amazon.com and www.mvdb2b.com.
MORE LES & WES
Les McCann was still primarily known as a pianist during the period of time covered by the three-CD set Never A Dull Moment (Resonance HCD 2066). Compiled by producer Zev Feldman, this compilation has two CDs of previously unreleased music from 1966 broadcasts emanating from the Penthouse in Seattle, a version of “Indiana” from 1963, and a lesser-known CD (originally put out on the 32 Jazz label as How’s Your Mother?) that was recorded at the Village Vanguard in 1967. The music is comprised solely of instrumentals.
McCann, who is joined by Stanley Gilbert, Leroy Vinnegar or Victor Gaskin on bass and Paul Humphrey, Tony Bazley or Frank Severino on drums, is in excellent form throughout. While best-known at the time for his funky jams and uptempo gospel pieces (which can be heard on these versions of “The Grabber” and “The Shampoo”), he was also capable of slow and heartfelt ballad statements (an emotional “Yours Is My Heart Alone” is a highlight), and Oscar Peterson-style bebop (“Blue ‘N Boogie’). Mixing together standards, some then-current pop tunes (including “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big,” “Goin’ Out Of My Head,” and “Sunny”) and soulful originals, McCann is featured in his prime playing period, shortly before he began to change directions. As usual with any Zev Feldman production, a large booklet (32 pages) with interviews and fine liner notes is included.
While Feldman had compiled and made available five earlier Wes Montgomery sets of previously unreleased material, the two-CD Maximum Swing: The Unissued 1965 Half Note Recordings is one of the most significant. After recording consistently brilliant performances for the Riverside label during 1959-63, the guitarist signed with Verve in 1964. While his first three releases for the label, Movin’ Wes, Bumpin,’ and Goin’ Out Of My Head, have their moments, Montgomery (who was joined on each of those albums by large bands) was mostly restricted to making short statements. His music was starting to lean towards commercial pop, a trend that was finalized in his three later albums for A&M.
However Wes Montgomery had not lost any of his playing abilities as he showed during his live performances and during his well-documented European tour in 1965. During that year, he was captured in prime form along with pianist Wynton Kelly’s trio (which included bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb) on the five selections released as Burnin’ At The Half Note. Ironically, only two of those songs were actually recorded live (the other three were from a slightly later studio recording) but that recording is considered a classic. Years later, other selections from the collaborations with Kelly’s trio were added to comprise the larger two-Lp set Wes Montgomery – The Small Group Recordings.
Fortunately Montgomery also performed at the Half Note with Kelly’s Trio during Sept. and Nov. 1965. Eight of the numbers on Maximum Swing were originally put out by the bootleg label Jazz on Jazz. Maximum Swing includes those eight selections with improved sound along with nine previously unreleased numbers. Montgomery, Kelly and Cobb are joined at the different sessions by either Chambers, Ron Carter, Larry Ridley, or Herman Wright on bass.
The recording quality of these performances, some of which are taken from radio shows that contain occasional dialogue between the guitarist and the host, is decent if not flawless, but this twofer contains some of the greatest Wes Montgomery guitar solos ever recorded. He got to stretch out at length and his playing on such numbers as the first of two versions of his “Four On Six,” “All The Things You Are,” “I Remember You,” “Cherokee,” and “The Song Is You” is often miraculous. Montgomery never seems to run out of creative ideas even seven or eight minutes into a solo. And while one hears a bit of his trademark octaves and plenty of heated single-note work, it is his rapid chordings that are particularly impressive and unexpected. As a bonus, the 52-page booklet with Maximum Swing is especially rewarding with short pieces from a variety of jazz artists plus very good extensive liner notes from Bill Milkowski.
The Les McCann and Wes Montgomery sets are available from www.resonancerecords.org.
I have a new book that is available from amazon.com. Life Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist. It is subtitled My Jazz Memoirs and is my 12th book and first in a few years. I discuss in an often-humorous fashion my early days and discovery of jazz, my period as the jazz editor of Record Review, the story behind my involvement with the All Music Guide, and I reminisce about some of my adventures as an amateur musician. Included are vintage interviews with Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, and Maynard Ferguson, encounters with Clint Eastwood, summaries of the Monterey and Playboy Jazz Festivals (including a full-length review of the 1985 Playboy Festival), memories of other events (such as the IAJE Conventions), and brief snapshots of many memorable club and concert performances. There is also background information about my other books, evaluations of the jazz critics who inspired me early on, and my thoughts on jazz criticism which includes advice to up-and-coming jazz journalists. Rounding out the book is a chapter on how the jazz writing business has changed over the past 50 years, and appendixes that include the jazz greats of the past, 86 jazz giants of today, 21 young performers to look for in the future, jazz books and DVDs that everyone should own, and a dozen enjoyable Hollywood jazz films.
Life Through The Eyes Of A Jazz Journalist, a paperback book, sells for $26 through Amazon.com Signed copies (which will take 2-3 weeks) are also available for $30 (which includes free postage) by sending the money via Pay Pal to email@example.com and by sending your mailing address to that E-mail.