by Scott Yanow
Kamasi Washington, an excellent tenor-saxophonist with strong technical skills and the look of a superstar, has often been written about as if he were an important jazz innovator who is blazing new trails for the music. His first recording as a leader, a three-CD set modestly titled The Epic, won critical acclaim and helped to build up a large audience despite the ambitious music actually not being very memorable or new. The same could be said for his recent concert at the John Anson Ford Theater.
The venue was crowded, the audience was very enthusiastic, and Kamasi Washington was generous in his praise of the sidemen in his 13-piece band while constantly smiling. The only thing that was lacking was the quality of the music. The songs, mostly all originals, were generally lightweight funk grooves with brief melodies (often eight bars) that were repeated constantly. Many of the pieces were little more than one or two chord vamps. The lyrics on the vocal numbers (which featured the singing of Patrice Quinn) tended to be of the very basic “love & peace” variety and were forgettable. Ms. Quinn sounded best when singing wordlessly as part of the ensembles.
Kamasi Washington only took four solos throughout the evening. As usual he hinted at Pharoah Sanders but without taking his improvisations to the extreme or to any real conclusion or climax. He sometimes played emotionally but fresh ideas were absent. Washington featured all of his sidemen but generally on just one solo a night. For example, the fine pianist Aaron Graves took an excellent solo on the opening “The Garden Path” but was otherwise not featured again. The same was true for the horn players; trombonist Ryan Porter had one good spot. Altoist Terrace Martin was a surprise guest on “Truth” (sounding a bit like Sonny Rollins) but there was no real interplay between him and Washington and he soon disappeared from the stage.
On the brighter side, the John Anson Ford Theater is a beautiful venue, the sound is excellent, and one could imagine enjoying high-quality music at this attractive site.
As for Kamasi Washington and his large number of adoring fans, this seems to be a case of the “emperor’s new clothes” with every one praising the saxophonist as he performs a watered-down version of 1970s spiritual jazz while pretending (or not knowing) that it was all done better a half-century ago.
LeRoy Downs (“the Jazz Cat”) and Just Jazz have presented rewarding and adventurous Jazz at Mr. Musichead Gallery on a weekly (and sometimes semi-weekly) basis for several years. While that series has now been cut back to a monthly concert (upcoming is Michael Wolff on Sept. 21, Sam Barsh on Oct. 5, a Nov. 16 show with Jonathan Pinson’s Boom Clap, and a group led by Mark Turner on Dec. 14), Just Jazz will be presenting jazz performances at other venues while the Mr. Musichead Gallery features a wide variety of musical and arts shows.
One of the last in the weekly shows was a performance by violinist Jenny Scheinman and her quintet which also included altoist Beth Schenck, pianist Carmen Staaf, guitarist Matt Wrobel, and bassist Todd Sickafoose. While she has led at least nine albums of her own, Ms. Scheinman is perhaps best known for her long-time association with Bill Frisell. Her original music tends to be picturesque, ensemble-oriented, and quietly colorful. Her violin is always a joy to hear.
During her night at Mr. Musichead Gallery, the violinist performed such songs as “House And Flowers,” “That’s Delight,” the emotional “Nocturne For 2020,” “4B For Dee” (the most swinging performance of the evening), and the ballad “Amelia’s Room.” The musicians worked closely together and reacted to each other’s ideas. Pianist Staaf was particularly impressive and inventive in her solos. The result was a night of thoughtful and sometimes energetic modern chamber jazz.
The Crazy J. Ranch has been hosting outdoor concerts on a fairly regular basis. While they usually feature bluegrass, they played host to the Django Festival All Stars one Sunday afternoon. The quintet, consisting of leader-guitarist Samson Schmitt, violinist Pierre Blanchard, accordionist Ludovic Beier, guitarist Michael Harris (subbing for an ill DouDoul Cuillerier), and bassist Antonio Licusati, was quite outstanding.
The Django Festival All Stars, while inspired by the music and style of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, has long had its own sound and repertoire. They mostly performed originals that, while being a bit more modern than Django’s music, swung hard. Schmitt and Blanchard played virtuosic guitar and violin solos although the dazzling button accordionist Beier often took honors with his rapid ideas and dazzling technique. Unlike with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, rhythm guitarist Harris also had some opportunities to solo (particularly during the group’s second of two sets) and proved to be a superior soloist too. Among the songs that they performed were “Let’s Play Today,” “Lovely Wife,” and “Attitude Manouche.” The only standards that were performed were when the two guitarists were showcased on a multi-tempoed “Sheik Of Araby,” a singer sat in or “On the Sunny Side Of The Street,” and a closing medley of Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages” and “Minor Swing.”
The afternoon of modern but hot swing made one wish that the Django Festival All Stars performed in Southern California more often. Catch them whenever you can.
THREE FROM DOCUMENT
The Document label, which was founded in Austria in 1986 by Johnny Perth and is now based in Scotland, has achieved the monumental accomplishment of reissuing nearly every blues recording made before 1945. Their catalog also includes a large sampling of blues from 1945-70 along with some jazz, spirituals, and early country music. While some of their hundreds of CDs are difficult to find (being out of stock), the great majority are available from their website www.document-records.com. In addition, some are carried by MVD Distributors (www.mvdb2b.com) including the three covered in this article.
Leadbelly (1888-1949) was a fascinating and colorful singer-guitarist who was a pioneer in performing folk music, blues, Americana, and a very wide repertoire. A musician since 1903, he did not record until the mid-1930s due to serving several prison sentences including one for murder. Leadbelly gradually gained fame during the second half of the 1930s and was working and recording quite regularly by the beginning of the 1940s. He remained busy until his decline and death in 1949 due to ALS.
Volume 7 1947-1949 has the final recordings and performances of Leadbelly. He is mostly in excellent form, singing and playing his 12-string guitar on a This Is Jazz radio broadcast, a previously unreleased studio session, and extensive dates (probably taken from radio appearances) in the fall of 1948 (with Brownie McGhee playing second guitar on two numbers). Leadbelly also sounds fine on a radio broadcast from Feb. 13, 1949 but is much weaker on the final two numbers from June 10, 1949, accompanying his wife’s singing a few months before his death. Among the many highlights of this 28-song CD are “John Henry,” “Tell Me Baby What’s Wrong With You,” “Take A Whiff On Me,” “Take This Hammer,” ”You Can’t Lose A Me, Charlie,” and “Good Morning Blues.”
Son House (1902-1988) did not become a musician until he was 25, having spent his earlier years involved with the church. While he recorded a series of now-classic performances in 1930 that displayed his passion and power, they were not commercial successes. Other than some titles for the Library of Congress during 1941-42, he did not record again until 1965, working outside of music. He was rediscovered during the folk/blues revival in 1964 and gained his greatest fame during the next ten years when he performed regularly until his retirement from declining health in 1974.
Live At The Gaslight is a very valuable recording, featuring Son House in prime form playing solo at a coffeehouse on Jan. 3, 1965 early in his comeback. His repertoire mixes together blues and spirituals and he is as powerful as ever on such numbers as “Motherless Children,” “Preachin’ The Blues,” “This Little Light Of Mine,” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.” His guitar playing is also impressive, and while not as essential as his 1930 recordings, this CD gives one an excellent example of what it was like to see Son House perform.
Because many of the early blues artists only recorded a handful of 78s before drifting away into history, Document has often combined together the complete output of several complementary artists on a single CD. Country Blues Collector’s Items (1924-1928) has all of the music recorded by eight artists, all of whom are forgotten today: Ed Andrews, Kid Brown, Emery Glen, Sammy Brown, Lewis Black, Johnnie Head, Mooch Richardson and T.C. Johnson. Virtually nothing is known about any of their lives. The music was recorded in either Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago, or Richmond, Indiana and ranges from primitive lowdown blues to hints of medicine shows and the sophisticated playing of Mooch Richardson; the latter is joined by guitarist Lonnie Johnson on three of his six numbers. What these performances have in common is that they document styles of blues that are nearly forgotten today by obscure artists whose records simply did not sell enough to warrant more recordings being made. They all deserve a listen.
RHINO’S JAZZ REISSUE PROGRAM
Rhino Records always seems to have several major projects going on at once. While most of their reissues are in other genres of music, occasionally they dig into the vaults and come out with some rewarding vintage jazz. Three two-CD sets were released in recent times.
John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things album (originally for Atlantic) was not only a classic but a very popular seller due to Coltrane’s transformation of the title cut into an extensive exploration. Joined by pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Steve Davis (who would later be succeeded by Reggie Workman and finally Jimmy Garrison), Coltrane also performs a modal version of “Summertime,” “Everytime We Say Goodbye” and “But Not For Me.” He plays two songs apiece on tenor and soprano.
The original album is essential but the Rhino reissue is a bit of frivolity. The same four performances appear on each of the two CDs with one disc being in mono and the other stereo. Clearly the audience for this set will be primarily audiophiles.
The other two Rhino releases are more significant. While bassist Charles Mingus recorded as a sideman in conventional piano-bass-drums trios during 1952-55 with Billy Taylor, Bud Powell, Spaulding Givens, Hank Jones, Paul Bley, Hazel Scott, John Mehegan, and John Dennis, and with Duke Ellington on 1962’s Money Jungle, he only led one trio album in his career. In 1957 he was joined by pianist Hampton Hawes and drummer Danny Richmond for Mingus Three. The group performed four standards, “Back Home Blues,” “Hamp’s New Blues” (which is actually based on “I Got Rhythm”) and the lone Mingus original, “Dizzy Moods.” Hawes sounds less boppish and a bit more original than usual for the period while Mingus takes a similar amount of solo space as the pianist.
The Rhino reissue adds a second disc of outtakes. There are alternate versions of six of the seven numbers (all but “Laura”) with two being incomplete including a 58-second snippet of “Yesterdays.” Also included are a pair of “Untitled Blues” that might have been considered warmups. The first one is taken at a fast pace while the second is a bit slower and of slightly higher quality; the latter should have been released at the time. In general, the alternates make for interesting comparisons with the issued versions on this fairly conventional Charles Mingus set.
Most rewarding of the trio of Rhino releases is Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk. For this project in 1957, the Jazz Messengers (drummer Blakey, trumpeter Bill Hardman, Johnny Griffin on tenor, and bassist Spanky DeBrest) were joined by the unique pianist-composer for five Monk compositions and the Griffin blues “Purple Shades.” The twofer version has a second disc consisting of a complete alternate take of each of the six selections. The solos are equally rewarding but
these renditions were probably rejected because some of the melody statements are not as clean as the issued versions.
Johnny Griffin shows why he was considered the world’s fastest saxophonist at the time, taking some remarkable double-time runs. The underrated Billy Hardman sounds close to Clifford Brown at times. Thelonious Monk is very much in control as can be heard by his percussive accompaniment of the soloists (except when he is sitting out) and his always-distinctive solos. DeBrest is fine in a supportive role and Blakey is typically assertive, throwing in some of his trademark drum rolls to inspire the soloists.
The combination works quite well on such tunes as “Evidence,” “In Walked Bud” and “I Mean You.” In fact, Monk was obviously impressed by Griffin’s playing because he hired him to play with his quartet the following year.
The three Rhino sets are available from www.amazon.com.
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