Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Wasted Jazz Talent, Parts 1 & 2

Perhaps you could consider this post to be a public service announcement of sorts. An advisory to "STEP AWAY FROM THAT ALBUM" and not to waste your precious hours on a sure musical trainwreck. Here we have two incredibly talented jazz legends, with what very well may be two of the worst "jazz" albums of all time, both trying to pull a page out of Herb Alpert's songbook, and apparently score some commercial success. So you have been warned, as we begin our trip into the scary world of long out of print jazz vinyl.

I'll start with the Dizzy Gillespie album "It's My Way" on Solid State Records (affiliated with Liberty/United Artists, the then owners of Blue Note). It's from 1969 and it certainly sounds like it, the worst kind of jazz/pop crossover of the era. Dizzy is "featured" with a pop band and string orchestra playing such jazz classics as Jimmy Webb's Galveston and a medley of tunes from Hair! This isn't a case of a jazz artist covering a trite pop tune, and turning in a great jazz performance though, (like Coltrane on My Favorite Things). Instead, this is Dizzy simply playing pop tunes with a pop band, that probably just got out the studio next door cutting some "hits" for AM radio. The author of the liner notes says Dizzy told him "He's never wailed better," which is quite ironic considering that Dizzy rarely gets to play a note, and when he does, nine times out of ten it's just the melody. The arrangements are by Jimmy Mundy (the guy who wrote the tune we know as Walkin which Miles Davis played for so many years). Mundy's pop charts are bad enough, but when paired with the lousy drum and fender bass rhythm section they become simply disposable. Even tracks which one would think might be decent, like Tadd Dameron's beautiful tune Whatever Possess'd Me and Gillespie's own Manteca, are ruined by their horrible arrangements. The Dameron track would actually be really good if the drummer could swing or play anything somewhat hip.

At first it might be easy to blame the horrid results of this album on the producer, after all it was RICHARD CARPENTER!!! But on further examination, it turns out NOT to be THAT Richard Carpenter, brother of Karen, but rather the OTHER Richard Carpenter, a noted jazz shyster, who according to James Gavin, ripped off Chet Baker so badly that Chet literally wanted to kill the man. And wouldn't you know, Carpenter also is the guy who is legally credited with writing Mundy's song Walkin and he's credited with a song here as well, titled Magic Tree. Thus, it's really no surprise that this album turned out as bad as it did. Dizzy wasn't the trumpet player he was 10 years earlier, jazz wasn't selling as it once did, and Carpenter and everyone involved were looking for a quick buck, to cash in on some of Herb Alpert's lucrative audience. Fortunately, such efforts by serious jazz musicians like Gillespie are usually forgotten, and left to languish in the thrift store record bin, until some joker like yours truly finds a copy laying around somewhere. In the case of this record, I bought it probably over 10 years ago at a local library's book and record sale. I can't remember what I paid for it, certainly less than a dollar, and even though I didn't know very much about jazz at that point, I knew once I put the lp on the record player that it was pretty weak. I forgot all about it until I was looking for some old 8mm family movies before Christmas and stumbled across this gem. And the truth is, it's just as bad as I remembered it.

After giving "It's My Way" another listen, it got me thinking about other horrible albums by jazz stars. Having lost my copy of Jackie McLean's disco pop record from the 1970's, I was forced to turn to Chet Baker for further inspiration, and his dreadful album from 1970, titled Blood, Chet and Tears. This one comes from our station archives, and judging from the pristine quality of the vinyl, it looks like it didn't get much airplay. Like the Gillespie record, it's Chet trying to cop some of Alpert's appeal, and in that sense, perhaps it's more successful. But it's arrangements are even less jazz inspired than those of It's My Way. On this album, Chet plays tunes like Spinning Wheel and Vehicle, and even sings on a couple of tracks, George Harrison's Something, and Come Saturday Morning by the Sandpipers. You can imagine the results. Then think twice as worse. The production values seem to be a little higher with than with Dizzy's record, but what is really cringe inducing is thinking what a waste of great talent these records were. People talk about Wes Montgomery's late albums for Verve and A&M being pop drivel, but these albums make those Montgomery sides sound like A Love Supreme. Aside from Baker's talent as both a instrumentalist and as a jazz singer (some would debate that last one), Blood Chet and Tears features A list stars like Joe Pass, Al Casey, Al Grey, Plas Johnson, Buddy Collette, Tommy Tedesco, and many others. It really is enough to make you stop and say to yourself "what were they thinking?" Of course the answer is obvious - money, but did they really think people would buy this stuff? I have a feeling they knew it wouldn't sell, thus the hard sell both of them use in the liner notes. Where Dizzy's album tells us Dizzy felt he had never "wailed" better (and such an appropriate choice of words!) Chet's liner note writer tells us "This album has to be considered sheer treasure, like searching for gold and finding uranium." But just be sure to bring your own Geiger Counter on your next trip to the used record store.

(By the way, the website Chet Baker Tribute.com has a page set up about this album here).

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Top 10 Jazz CDs of 2005 (and some more)...

Of course, this is a very difficult list to put together. Picking ten cds out of over 400 new albums leaves open the possibility that I am leaving out some very good records that are deserving of recognition. However, here are my picks, in no particular order, of the best new jazz cds of 2005.

Joe Lovano - Joyous Encounter
A beautiful paring of Joe Lovano's tenor with the Rolls Royce rhythm section of Hank Jones, George Mraz and Paul Motian. It's the follow up to their last cd "All For You" and it sounds much more comfortable than that previous studio session, as it should, for this one was recorded after the band spent some time touring. Great stuff.

Bebo Valdes - Bebo de Cuba
There is no greater living musician in latin jazz than Bebo Valdes, and this may be his best project yet. Disc 1 is big band charts, Disc 2 small group sessions, and it also has a bonus dvd. The legendary pianist is surrounded by "A List" talent like Paquito D'Rivera, Michael Philip Mossman, Ray Vega and many more. And the recording quality is wonderful. A true legend of latin jazz is finally getting his due.

Enrico Pieranunzi - Fellini Jazz
Enrico Pieranunzi is the most underrated pianist in jazz (among US audiences). This cd, with Chris Potter, Kenny Wheeler, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, should do something to rectify that. The theme from Fellini's films are wonderfully cast in a jazz setting and the playing simply could not be more sublime.

Moacir Santos - Choros and Alegria
Much like Bebo Valdes, here is another example of a great musician finally getting the attention he deserves in the US. In this case, the artist is from Brazil, not Cuba, and the focus is on Santos' orchestral writing, and his melodies and textures and enchanting; each composition is like a little jewel.

Thelonious Monk & John Coltrane - At Carnegie Hall
Two jazz legends caught at their peak, in pristine sound quality, it's the jazz equivalent of finding a new play by Shakespeare. It belongs in every jazz collection.

Dena DeRose - A Walk In the Park
Perhaps my favorite vocal cd of the year, Dena is a great piano player as well, and this cd just hits on all cylinders (to use a tired cliche). The band is exceptionally tight (Matt Wilson and Martin Wind play drums and bass respectively) and Dena's versions of Meditation and All the Way are quite memorable AND fresh.

Darek Oles - Like A Dream
Bassist Darek Oles is known in LA, where he's based, but not so much out of California. This dreamy new cd on Cryptogramophone Records, featuring old pal Brad Mehldau has some of Brad's best work, and will hopefully raise Darek's profile a little as well. This is what jazz is all about, (in my book) and it is simply sublime.

Bill Charlap - Plays George Gershwin
Charlap may be my favorite pianist these days, aside from legend Hank Jones. His new album is a perfect example of everything that makes his great: incredible fleet footed trio work, lush ballads (demonstrating Charlap's almost unparalleled knowledge of the songs inside and out), fine ensemble work, and lyrical improvisations that are distinctively his. This guy is almost too good!

Pat Metheny Group - Speaking of Now
Metheny's magnum opus may not be something you're going to listen to all the time, but it's an important and fascinating piece of music. True, it may be a bit pretentious at times, and uses some very familiar PMG cliches here and there, but I think it holds up rather well, and is something that people will be listening and studying years from now.

Sonny Rollins - Without A Song - The 9/11 Concert
Sonny is beyond a "living legend" he is true jazz royalty. Sometimes his studio albums don't capture his brilliance. This live recording is not without it's faults and flaws, but that's what makes it so good. It's not perfect, it's got an almost documentary feel too it, and you can see Sonny's improvisational genius shine (at times) as brightly as ever.

Honorable Mention:
Alan Pasqua - My New Old Friend
This one is perhaps the most beautiful cd of the year and really caught me by surprise. Alan is one heck of a piano player, with a fine trio on this album.

Wynton Marsalis - Live at the House of Tribes
A late night jam session captures Wynton at his best, but perhaps the band (Wes Anderson, Joe Farnsworth and Eric Lewis) steal the show at times. I dig the laid back after hours vibe. We don't get enough of that in jazz today.

Hank Jones - For My Father
What can I say about Hank that hasn't already been said. He is the best, and even at his "advanced" age, he plays with a sense of imagination and musical awareness that people half his age can't muster. He never sounds anything but impeccable.

Bireli Lagrene Gipsy Project - Move
Lagrene makes a wise choice here not to simply duplicate Django's Hot Club arrangements. Instead he keeps them fresh, adds some new voices and produces one of the most fun (and often requested) jazz cds of the year.

The City Rhythm Orchestra w/ Joey DeFrancesco - Vibrant Tones
I knew nothing about this Philly based big band before they sent us the cd this year. It's nothing revolutionary, just solid Basie-esque big band writing with Joey D on the B3 tearing things up. I love the version of Senor Blues, and Joey's tip of his cap to Jimmy Smith on Walk on the Wild Side.

Ahmad Jamal - After Fajr
The stuff with the vocals doesn't do it for me, but the bulk of this album features some of the best trio work I've heard from Ahmad Jamal in decades. People, even hardcore jazz fans don't really appreciate how brilliant and daring Ahmad Jamal's playing is. No one, and I mean NO ONE uses dynamics like he does, and his sense of taking musical risks puts many "avant garde" musicians to shame. Impressive.

Alan Broadbent - Round Midnight
Yet another piano trio record (2005 was a very good year for piano, bass & drums!) that showcases a true master of the piano and lyrical jazz improvisation. Brian Bromberg can be a little too much for me at times on bass (think Eddie Gomez on steroids) but I've been playing this disc an awful lot, and like it more and more each time.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Concord buys Telarc, Heads Up labels

It looks like the Concord Music Group is moving ahead with their ambitious plans to grow their business, after acquiring Fantasy Records earlier this year. They've now added Telarc and the affiliated Heads Up label to their roster, which now includes Concord Jazz, Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary, Fantasy, Milestone and many other imprints. A lot of die hard jazz fans are somewhat disheartened by Concord's purchase of Fantasy, and rumors that the new owners will "purge" the notoriously large Fantasy (and specifically OJC - Original Jazz Classics) catalog. My take on this is that Fantasy wasn't a very well run business, and while they kept a lot of stuff in print, they could have done a much better job in other areas, like marketing and promotion. Concord has proven success in those areas, but we'll have to see in what direction they go. The following is a portion of the press release from Concord. You can read the rest -here-

12/19/05,Beverly Hills, CA - The Concord Music Group today announced the acquisition of Telarc International Corporation. The Cleveland, Ohio-based Telarc has been a leader in classical and jazz recordings for over 25 years. Included in the transaction is Heads Up International, which became part of Telarc in 2000. Heads Up is known for its highly successful catalog of contemporary instrumental and world music. Following the recent acquisition of Fantasy, Inc, this transaction further bolsters the Concord Music Group as one of the world’s largest and most dynamic independent record companies.

Founded in 1977 by musicians and former teachers Bob Woods and Jack Renner, Telarc has amassed 46 GRAMMY™ Awards and a catalog of more than 1,000 master recordings ranging from classical and classical-crossover to jazz and blues, from such legendary artists as Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Ray Brown, Andre Previn, and Oscar Peterson. The current jazz roster includes celebrated singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli and vocalist Tierney Sutton. Telarc’s extraordinary classical roster includes landmark recordings from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Cincinnati Symphony and Cincinnati Pops Orchestras, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Artist-oriented and known throughout the industry for sonic innovation and super-high quality audio, Telarc became the first label to commercially use digital recording in 1978, and, in 1983, was one of the first to launch compact discs in a joint effort with Sony Corporation. In 2004, Telarc was named Label of the Year by Gramophone Magazine in the .

Heads Up International’s roster, headed by founder and label president Dave Love, includes internationally respected artists such as Spyro Gyra, Najee, Michael Brecker, The Yellowjackets, and highly acclaimed world music artists Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Hugh Masekela. Both Telarc and Heads Up have a significant number of recordings in high definition and Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) format, based on the superior Direct Stream Digital recording technology.

“The cultures of our companies are very similar and we see lots of synergies through the merging of our talented staffs and our mutual goals,” says Telarc president Bob Woods. “Glen Barros and I have known each other for some time and I respect the creative indie mentality our companies share, which allows us to respond quickly to the constant change and abundant opportunities in our industry. We’ll be a larger entity, but we won’t move slowly. Besides,” Woods added, “Telarc and Heads Up are certain that they will kickConcord ’s butt in the company softball game.”

Glen Barros, president and CEO of the Concord Music Group, said, “We are incredibly proud to welcome Telarc and Heads Up to the Concord family, as we truly admire these great labels. Telarc’s history of impeccable audio and musical standards has made it one of the world’s most respected independent labels and we are honored to be the ones chosen to safeguard this rich legacy. As with all great record companies, Telarc and Heads Up are built on a solid foundation of great artists and great people. We truly look forward to working alongside Bob Woods, Dave Love, and their talented team and know that they will make a great contribution toward the achievement of our mutual goals.” Added Barros, “The only thing I’m worried about is how Bob is going to take the news when he finds out that there is no company softball game.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

If jazz is in such bad shape...

If there is one common theme in the world of jazz news, it has to be the old "jazz is dying/jazz is dead/someone is trying to bring a new audience to jazz" story that comes around every six months or so in some major publication.

We all have heard the doom and gloom stories, how jazz has a 2 percent marketshare (and that's including Kenny G's sales!), how the audience is old, and supposedly getting smaller, how the major labels are out of the jazz business, how there are no new "innovators" in the music, et al. But let's turn some of that conventional wisdom around and see what's REALLY happening in the jazz world.

1) If jazz is so bad off from a financial perspective, why are there so many new jazz cds (and reissues)? December is the one month of the year when my office is not flooded with new jazz releases (the industry pretty much takes the month off, leaving it up to retail to do their job and move the product). While I don't have the hard data to back this up, I would bet that there's probably 1/3 more new jazz releases today than there were say 10 years ago, at the height of the "new lions movement." And probably double the number of new jazz releases of say 1965 or 1955. Now granted the industry and the country have changed so much in those years, technology now allows a part time jazz musician to record, edit, master, duplicate and promote his or her own new jazz release when in the past, that was simply impossible. Surely many of these releases lose money, but that happens across the board in the entertainment industry, so we can't hold that up as some sign that jazz is faltering. After all, if it is SO terrible out there in the jazz world, why so many new cds? (not including reissues). If this isn't a sign that jazz is "healthy" it is at the very least a sign that the music is not on life support.

2) Major Labels aren't signing artists
So what? Jazz has never been a music that was truly embraced by the recording industry establishment. From the end of the swing era to the 1990's, jazz artists, even the biggest names, Monk, Coltrane, Parker, Ella Fitzgerald found themselves recording on smaller "independent" record labels. Norman Granz's Norgan/Clef/Verve label was an independent before falling into the MGM family. Blue Note was a two man operation for decided before being swallowed up by Liberty and later EMI. Of course Prestige, Riverside and on the west coast Fantasy and Contemporary were independent as well. Only CBS really had a viable jazz division, and it was still fairly small. RCA always had a limited artist roster (Paul Desmond, Sonny Rollins). Impulse was started as the jazz division of ABC, which itself was an "indie". Argo/Cadet were part of the Chicago based Chess family, again, independent. Atlantic began as an independent too, and was for the bulk of the time it specialized in jazz. Even Creed Taylor's crossover success with CTI in the 70's was on an artist owned label (though distributed by a major). In the 1990's someone got the idea that if a jazz artist wasn't "signed" (I hate that word) to a major label, something was wrong. That system was not sustainable for the big corporate concerns that run the show, so of course, they got out of the jazz business. But lo and behold, a new crop of independent labels and more recently, artist run outfits have taken hold and are a much more healthy fit for the music. So the loss of "the majors" really isn't that big of a deal.

I'll pick up this discussion later, and talk about the myth of the "dying" jazz audience next time.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Red Garland & Gene Harris - No Respect!

I was listening to some old out of print records by The Three Sounds this weekend, and was reminded once again how much I enjoy Gene Harris' playing. The group certainly wasn't groundbreaking in any conventional way, but boy, did those guys know how to swing. While he did posses the technical brilliance of Oscar Peterson, or the inventiveness of Bud Powell, or the rhythmic and harmonic edge of Thelonious Monk, it's hard to say that I like Gene's playing any less for it. Yet while there are a number of fine Gene Harris records on Concord in the bins, you won't find many by The Three Sounds for some reason. Gene doesn't seem to get a lot of respect amongst the jazz cognoscenti, for whatever reason. Listen to those early records from the 60's, that stuff has held up a lot better than quite few more prominent jazz artists of the era.

I think the same can largely be said for Red Garland. I find his work brilliant in several ways - his touch, the rhythmic "bounce" in his playing, the tightness of his trio, and of course his ability to swing. Most people know his simply as the pianist in Miles Davis' first great quintet with John Coltrane. Yet he has a string of great trio and quartet sessions in his own name on Prestige. I especially like the ones with percussionist Ray Barretto sitting in. He adds that same special touch to Red's records as he did to Lou Donaldson's Blues Walk and Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue.

I think part of the problem with Gene and Red is that they didn't die young. Red lived until 1984, and Gene Harris just passed away in 2000 (I can't believe it was that long ago!). Sonny Clark, a similar sort of pianist, who had a much smaller recorded output, has a rather substantial cult following. But he died at age 31 in 1963. Some might say that Sonny Clark was a more original player that Red or Gene, (I love Sonny, but I beg to differ on that one), but even if you feel that way, it's odd how you'll find quite a few Sonny Clark reissues, but not many Gene Harris Blue Notes in the record bins. Just an observation.