by Scott Yanow
After 17 months of starvation, I finally had the opportunity to see live jazz again. I wanted to start off with something really strong, and guitarist Doug MacDonald’s group at the Vibrato Grill perfectly fit the bill. Imagine this lineup: the guitarist-leader, trumpeter Carl Saunders, trombonist Ira Nepus, tenor-saxophonist Rickey Woodard, Kim Richmond on alto and flute, pianist Joe Bagg, bassist Chuck Berghofer, and drummer Roy McCurdy, plus Barbara Morrison and Jack Wood on vocals! The group could have accurately been billed as the L.A. All-Stars.
During their performance, all of the musicians had their opportunities to take solos and be featured. MacDonald was clearly quite happy to be at the head of this ensemble and his boppish solos and riffing behind the other players kept the music swinging. Performing standards and an occasional original (including “Night By Night” which was based on “Day By Day”), the band excelled on such numbers as “Lester Leaps In,” “I Want To Be Happy,” and “Round Up,” with the guitarist in the spotlight on “Lover Man.” Saunders took a few typically miraculous solos (going into the stratosphere with ease and occasionally unleashing a very rapid flurry of notes), Woodard played his own soulful double-time runs, Richmond displayed effortless versatility and Nepus put plenty of feeling into his statements. In addition, Jack Wood sang several numbers in his Sinatra-inspired style including “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” and “Witchcraft.”
But it would not be an understatement to say that Barbara Morrison stole the show during both sets. In addition to her infectious singing and her voice (which is in prime form), her showmanship and the joy that she expresses proved impossible to resist. She was quite memorable on a warm “My Romance,” an uptempo “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” a version of “Take The ‘A’ Train” that found her trading scatting with Saunders, a duet with MacDonald on “The Very Thought Of You,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and a rollicking “Shake, Rattle & Roll.”
It is not surprising that Doug MacDonald was smiling throughout the night. This band should record.
At Catalina Bar & Grill, Kurt Elling led a group that included keyboardist John Beasley, bassist Joshua Crumbly, and drummer Terreon Gully. While one might have expected Elling to perform standards or (because Beasley leads Monkestra) Thelonious Monk tunes, the music was quite a bit different but no less satisfying.
Many of the songs featured Elling singing over a funky background but his vocalizing and improvising skills were not watered down in the slightest. In fact, he sounded inspired by the setting and his voice sounded very much at its peak. He frequently held powerful long notes without a moment of wavering and his imagination was in full flight. Elling also sounded quite happy to be performing live again, even as he said “We’re here to celebrate the end of the world.”
Some of the songs were from his upcoming release Superblue including the title cut, “Sassy,” “Dharma Jump,” “Steal From The Rich,” and “Endless Lawns.” Elling also performed an inventive version of Wayne Shorter’s “Delphia,” the relatively quiet “Secrets,” Abbey Lincoln’s “As Long As You’re Living,” and a lowdown blues, at one point scatting very much like a rockish guitar. Elling’s comments between songs were hip yet accessible and often-witty, and he gave plenty of solo space for his talented sidemen.
The music was unpredictable and filled with variety and surprises, qualities that one always expects from a performance by Kurt Elling who has been unquestionably jazz’s most significant male singer for the past 20 years.
TAMMY MCCANN AT CATALINA’S
She may not be a household name yet, but Tammy McCann is one of the best singers on today’s jazz scene. She has the large voice and wide expressive range of a gospel or r&b vocalist but Ms. McCann’s creativity, improvising skills, subtlety, and attention to mood and tempo changes mark her as a top-notch jazz singer.
At Catalina Bar & Grill, Tammy McCann (who is based in Chicago) brought along the great guitarist Fareed Haque and teamed up with an all-star Los Angeles rhythm section comprised of pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist John Clayton, and drummer Clayton Cameron. Throughout the night, Hendelman and Haque were clearly inspired by each other’s presence and they created individual statements that were consistently passionate and sometimes quite intense. The guitarist, who has an original style within jazz’s modern mainstream, was featured on instrumental versions of his “Blue Hindoo,” “and “My Favorite Things.” While Cameron offered hard-swinging support, Clayton took occasional solos and was quite pleased to be onstage with such fine musicians.
Tammy McCann, who was generous in featuring her sidemen, was nevertheless the main star. Starting with Carmen Lundy’s “Blue Woman,” she performed such numbers as “Save Your Love For Me” (which she made her own), Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues,” the Mahalia Jackson-inspired “I Want Jesus,” a wonderfully swinging “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” (which featured interplay between the singer and Clayton), an emotional “Grandma’s Hands,” “Blackbird,” Duke Ellington’s “Don’t You Know I Care (Or Don’t You Care To Know),” and a rousing “Canaan Land.”
Tammy McCann is already near the top of her field. I look forward to her piling up the accomplishments and becoming much better known.
REISSUES FROM THREE CLASSIC JAZZ SINGERS
Helen Humes (1913-81) was a delightful singer whose cheerful delivery and distinctive voice were perfectly at home on blues, swing standards and ballads. In the 1920s she was the youngest of all of the classic blues singer to record, performing ten songs including two that were cut before she turned 14; she later claimed that she did not know what she was singing about on the double-entendre blues. Humes next emerged in 1938 when she began a three-year period singing with the Count Basie Orchestra, mostly singing ballads since Jimmy Rushing got all of the blues. She was at her best during 1942-63 when as a solo singer she performed everything from hot swing and early r&b to bop, having a hit with “Be Baba Leba” and recording three memorable albums for the Contemporary label. Humes spent 1964-67 living in Australia and then was completely out of music for a period until she began a major comeback in 1973 that lasted until her death.
Three Classic Albums Plus (available from www.avidgroup.co.uk) lives up to its name. It is the most essential acquisition for anyone wanting to be introduced to the joy of Helen Humes. The double-CD reissues in full Humes’ three Contemporary albums: Songs I Like To Sing, Swingin’ With Helen, and Helen Humes. Other than a handful of titles, these are all the recordings that Humes made during 1953-72. The singer is joined by such greats as Benny Carter (on trumpet), trumpeter Joe Gordon, trombonist Frank Rosolino, tenor-saxophonists Teddy Edwards and Ben Webster, guitarist Barney Kessel, pianists Andre Previn and Wynton Kelly, and the Marty Paich Orchestra among others. Humes is heard at the peak of her career singing such numbers as “If I Could Be With You,” “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “You Can Depend On Me,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “The Very Thought Of You,” and her hilarious “Million Dollar Secret” which has her advice to women, both old and young.
The “Plus” in the title refers to the inclusion of 14 additional songs that came out as singles. They include two early blues from 1927, three songs from the Basie era, and various numbers from 1944-55 including “Be Baba Leba,” “They Raided The Joint,” and “Real Fine Daddy.”
Al Hibbler (1915-2001) is best known for his association with Duke Ellington (1943-51) and for occasionally utilizing an eccentric British accent even though he was originally from Mississippi. Blind from an early age, he started his career singing the blues in Texas and Arkansas although his early influences included Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. After working with Jay McShann during 1942-43, Hibbler was a fixture with Ellington, helping to introduce “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “I’m Just A Lucky So And So,” “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues,” and “I Like The Sunrise.” He had a reasonably successful solo career, recording regularly in the 1950s and having hits with “Unchained Melody” and “After The Lights Go Down Low.” After the early 1960s Hibbler was more obscure but he made a worthy recording with Rahsaan Roland Kirk (A Meeting Of The Times) in 1972.
The three-CD set Al Hibbler – The Singles Collection, 1946-59 (Acrobat) contains the cream of his solo years, reissuing 75 selections and only bypassing a handful of numbers from 1946-58 while including one song from 1959. Hibbler always liked singing sentimental ballads and was sometimes backed by orchestras, but he was particularly excellent at medium tempo pieces with combos. The first CD mostly features him singing swing songs with groups related to Duke Ellington including combos led by Harry Carney, Mercer Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with such sidemen as Ray Nance, Taft Jordan, Al Sears and Johnny Hodges. Among the performances from the other two discs are two numbers with Hodges’ small group, two songs with the Count Basie Orchestra (remakes of Jimmy Rushing favorites), and dates with orchestras that were often led by Jack Pleis, Sy Oliver or Leroy Lovett.
Carmen McRae (1920-94), who was world famous by the late 1950s, actually was slow in beginning her career. While her song “Dream Of Life” was recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939 and she worked with Benny Carter in 1944, it was not until she recorded her lone album for Bethlehem in 1954 that she began to be noticed. Her Decca recordings of 1955-59 made her well known and she was ranked just below Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan throughout her last 35 years. Her influential behind-the-beat phrasing (which was often conversational) and her distinctive stage personality with its ironic wit made her popular.
McRae’s four-CD set from the Acrobat label, The Singles & Albums Collection, contains no less than 94 selections. It starts with her recording debut from 1946, “Pass Me By” with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, and then has a generous sampling of her recordings from 1953-58 with eight of the 13 selections that she made for the Stardust label in 1953, some numbers from her Bethlehem record and highlights from such Decca albums as Carmen McRae, Torchy, By Special Request, Blue Moon, and After Glow. While her voice was a bit higher than it would become during her more mature years, Carmen McRae was already quite recognizable. Completists will be a bit dissatisfied since a complete reissuance of McRae’s recordings of the period would be twice as long (a large box set of her Decca recordings is long overdue), and the selections are not quite programmed in chronological order. Still, for a strong sampling of early Carmen McRae, the Acrobat set will certainly suffice for now.
The Al Hibbler and Carmen McRae reissues are both recommended and available from www.mvdb2b.com.