Reviews of Recent Recordings
Louis Armstrong and the All Stars
By 1947 big-band biz was dying while (I suspect only us moldy figs remember this) the trad jazz revival was growing around the world. The All Stars that Louis Armstrong formed that summer were 4/4 swing, not 2/2 trad, musicians. Clarinetist Peanuts Hucko was a Benny Goodman man. Trombonist Jack Teagarden had spent most of his life playing in or leading big and small swing bands. Pianist Dick Cary was a Teddy Wilson man and the All Stars drummer was Sid Catlett, who had helped motivate Armstrong’s big band, one of the swing era’s most swinging. They played a half-trad, half-pop and swing repertoire in a loose, post-Chicago, Dixieland-ensembles-plus-solos style. Of course nobody who heard Armstrong play “Muskrat Ramble” or “Tiger Rag” or “Tin Roof Blues” with his All Stars could mistake his uninhibited inventiveness or his intensity for revivalism.
That intensity of his. It’s as if this superhuman was totally absorbed in the act of creating. There is his trumpet sound, so rich that it could be nobody else’s even in the spaced staccato quarter notes that begin concerts (“Sleepy Time Down South”) as well as in his utterly personal terminal vibrato that expands in longer tones. There are the ways he plays choruses with themes and decorations, then improvises in melodies that grow into bravura choruses. He conceives of complete pieces, from opening ensemble leads to closely shaped trumpet solos to grand finales, that can at best turn into epics – for example “Royal Garden Blues” on the first disc, which is a near-masterpiece to rival his classic 1927 “Potato Head.” Grandeur, absolutely.
True, the best jazz of Armstrong’s youth – Dodds, Morton, Oliver, Yancey – sometimes achieved qualities of beauty and nobility of emotion that were simply beyond the scope of subsequent jazz. The exception was Armstrong himself. While his music changed over the years, he kept his capacity for intense feeling and brilliant expression. The resulted was some of the grandest (in the best senses of the word) music of the 20th century.
This is a box of nine CDs drawn from 12 concerts, including five complete or near-complete concerts; some rehearsals and studio odds and ends are included, as are some interviews. The best music comes from the first two complete concerts, both from 1947. It’s because both times Jack Teagarden is extraordinarily elated, creating urgent melodies in solo then following or leading Armstrong in ensembles. Again and again they inspire each other, including beautifully melodic Teagarden responses then Armstrong responses that are soaring flights (“Sunny Side of the Street,” “Basin Street Blues,” for example). Teagarden sings “St. James Infirmary” with the fervor of an Armstrong or a Caruso, and his old hit “Stars Fell on Alabama”; of course they both sing the famous “Rockin’ Chair.”
The first concert, recorded at NYC’s Town Hall in 1947, begins excellently with Armstrong playing “Dear Old Southland” and three old Hot Five tunes over the rhythm section, which has rattling drummer George Wettling playing behind the beat. It gets even better when the full band joins, including cornetist Bobby Hackett, who plays in ensembles and obbligatos to the vocals; fortunately, Catlett drums for half the concert. For the second concert, recorded six months later at Carnegie Hall, Catlett returns, Hackett and Wettling don’t, and Velma Middleton first appears, enjoyably singing “I Cried for You.” Clarinetist Barney Bigard is featured in three songs and somehow joins straight phrases with vaudeville incongruities (long slurs, sudden 16th- and 32nd-note scales and arpeggios, trills, little repeated licks) into mostly coherent solos.
The most famous Armstrong All-Stars, which included Earl Hines and Cozy Cole, recorded for Decca and are in another Mosaic box. This box (discs 3-8) jumps eight years to when Armstrong’s fellow All Stars are Middleton; a very fine clarinetist, Edmond Hall; veteran big-band trombonist Trummy Young; pianist Billy Kyle, at best an Earl Hines man but sometimes dull; drummer Barrett Deems; and the only other returnee from 1947, bassist Arvell Shaw, soon to be replaced by Jack Lesberg (one track) then Dale Jones. I miss Teagarden’s interplay. Young had been a smoothie in Jimmie Lunceford’s band, but in solo he dirties his sound with Armstrong – a self-conscious convert to Dixieland? Otherwise his soloing is occasionally inspired, then as an accompanist Young echoes the boss or outlines chords for him. Hall, though, is all music, a fluent inventor of melodies, a forceful soloist with a natural sense of form who is not cowed by Armstrong in ensembles. Surely he was the best clarinetist who ever played in the All Stars. The rocking swing of the Kyle-Jones-Deems rhythm section is a recurring delight.
My feelings about the five and four-fifths CDs recorded in nine months of 1955-56 are mixed. The often-played “Indiana” always inspires Armstrong’s best trumpet invention. A “West End Blues” on disc 4 is a great successor to his 1928 classic. I love to hear Armstrong sing “Mack the Knife,” “Sunny Side,” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?,” and pop songs like, surprise, “Tenderly” (as a waltz) and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are greatly enriched by the warmth and fullness of Armstrong’s trumpet. It’s interesting to hear how his soloing grows in ingenuity and detail from take to take in studio pieces and a concert “St. Louis Blues” with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Much of each concert is given to individual All Stars for solo pieces, including Hall’s lovely playing in “Dardanella” and “Clarinet Marmalade.”
But Armstrong’s repertoire – uh. Wonderful as his blues playing usually is, I weary of all these versions of “Bucket’s Got a Hole,” “Basin St.,” “Mahogany Hall,” especially after he’d played many better blues on his recent W.C. Handy album. This artist who in the 1930s had made great recordings of some of the best American popular songs, by Waller, Carmichael, Ellington, Arlen, Jimmy McHugh, on and on, was in 1955-6 playing and singing riff ditties and crap like “The Faithful Hussar,” “The Gypsy,” Gene and Eunice’s “Ko Ko Mo.” The program book blames producer George Avakian for some of these choices, but Armstrong himself liked to fall back on “The Saints.”
The post-1947 concerts are more tantalizing than fulfilling. For example, a Medinah Temple, Chicago concert (Mosaic’s booklet persistently misspells “Medinah”) has mere glimpses of what he can do with first-class songs like “Memphis Blues,” “Manhattan,” even with “Black and Blue” apart from the vocal – and then he builds glorious, passionate trumpet choruses in “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” to reminds us he’s the greatest of jazz artists. This sort of thing keeps happening throughout almost seven of these nine discs. On the final disc, from Newport, 1958, his band is Hucko, Young, Kyle, Middleton, with bassist Mort Herbert and drummer Danny Barcelona. There’s a particularly lovely “Lazy River” with Armstrong singing and scatting (“Oh, you dog river”). Most of the rest, even the hurried reunion with Teagarden and Hackett near the end, is disappointing.
Who knows? The Middleton vocals and solo pieces for the other All Stars were probably physically necessary, so Armstrong could rest his lips. Maybe Armstrong felt he needed some psychic rest, too, maybe he felt his physique and intellect, the passion in his best music, could not be sustained day after day, hundreds of days and nights every year, so he chose less emotionally demanding songs to play. Anyway, the first two CDs in this box are great. I haven’t heard the music from Mosaic’s collection of Decca studio All Stars (with Bigard, Teagarden, Earl Hines) in many years but suspect there may be as much great music in that box as in this one.
Vibraphonist/marimba player Orphy Robinson and pianist Pat Thomas are important anchors within the UK’s jazz and improvised music communities. Thomas also performs with tape loops, synthesizers and other electronics that he describes as lo-fi. The two envision their duo Blacktop as an environment for collaboration and experimentation. For #One, Blacktop is joined by saxophonist Steve Williamson, another celebrated black British jazz player. The three are heard over three selections that drive this vehicle in three distinct, but related areas. Williamson is a fluid lead voice. Thomas is disruptive and insistent both as pianist and with the electronic edge that might be a full half of his contribution. Orphy’s ripples are woody and chromatic.
There’s a real difference between a suspended mood and a mood of suspension, but this recording oscillates sometimes gratifyingly, sometimes a bit frustratingly between these extremes. Williamson’s lines seem inexhaustible, full, and somewhat autonomous. Certainly, there’s interplay between himself and the other two artists, but there is often a languid floating sensation as the sax voice appears to be a kite straining at its string, preparing to lift away from any rhythmic or harmonic logic implied by the other components. Somewhere near the middle of “Archaic Nubian Steps”, Thomas trades stabbed piano chords with Williamson’s short phrases while Robinson tries to knit it all together. The absence of drums leaves room for the rhythmic function of the marimba to hold sway and there are ample opportunities to hear Thomas’s robust piano playing in all its unobstructed glory as in the opening passages of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Novel sounds make the listening experience not just exotic but personal. The electronics interspersed in these improvisations occur sporadically, and tend to jump into the mix from out of nowhere, when you least expect them, and provide the only real bass in the recording. There is in the roomy, uncluttered and extended spontaneity of Blacktop plus Williamson a sense of reflecting on the act of reflecting, which is not at all a bad mood to evoke.
Clocks and Clouds
Clocks and Clouds is a co-operative quartet from Lisbon, consisting of trumpeter Luis Vicente, pianist Rodrigo Pinheiro, bassist Hernani Faustino and drummer Marco Franco. Likely Pinheiro and Faustino are better known outside Portugal for their recordings in Red Trio, whether in its fundamental form with drummer Gabriel Ferrandini or with the addition of such guests as John Butcher or Nate Wooley.
The name of the band comes from a composition by György Ligeti which in turn was taken from a distinction made by the philosopher Karl Popper (in a lecture called “Of Clouds and Clocks”) between “physical systems which, like gases, are highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable ... [and] ... physical systems which are regular, orderly, and highly predictable in their behaviour. (K.R. Popper, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1973) p.207). It’s an appealing metaphor for the kind of music this quartet plays, which can be heard subjectively at the moving intersection of jazz and free improvisation. If a discourse as open as jazz seems an unlikely “clock,” its status as such depends on the number of “clock” elements it contains: its fundamental rhythmic and harmonic elements as well as a relatively narrow and particular set of timbres and instrumental functions, embedded here in at least the appearance of a “rhythm section with horn.”
The name seems to be an invitation to explore identities within the music, at once highlighting certain predictabilities of pitch and linearity as well as the openness of the exchange and the possibilities of new interactions. It’s a band that listens very closely to one another, often building their collective improvisations out of an assemblage of repeated short rhythmic phrases (clocks?) that overlap and create complex webs of sound (clouds) in which each voice maintains its individuality and its flexibility.
Trumpeter Vicente is a significant emerging talent, a brassy, forceful trumpeter with a quick mind who often provides a linear focus around which this music assembles itself, elsewhere using the trumpet to create an expressive column of air, referencing the muted timbres of the tradition and ricocheting across that inviting chaos of disparate clocks that Pinheiro, Faustino and Franco provide in such joyously playful abundance.
Decoy + Joe McPhee
When the first trio recordings by the group Decoy hit in 2009, keyboardist Alexander Hawkins, bassist John Edwards and drummer Steve Noble made listeners take notice, proving that they could transplant an organ trio into the world of free improvisation. While their music included touchstones to the jazz organ tradition, the choice of including bass and of course the choice of musicians with broad ears and wide-ranging experience subverted things. There is Noble, who has ranged between skewed rock, encounters with Derek Bailey, free settings with Simon H. Fell, and all-out shredding with Edwards and Alex Ward in the trio False Face Society or the trio with Edwards and Alan Wilkinson. Edwards has consistently proven himself to be one of the preeminent go-to musicians in an enormously broad span of settings. Hawkins got some initial visibility as part of the all-star Convergence Quartet and brings the same elastic sense of time and form to this trio. Hot on the heels of those initial recordings, the three headed to London’s Café Oto to perform with Joe McPhee, later released as Oto. McPhee fit in perfectly, bringing back memories of his early firebrand work captured on his early recordings like Nation Time or Black Magic Man. The balance was just right, with a malleable energy as each of the members prodded and probed at the collective, cracking open pulse and momentum while maintaining a propulsive energy.
The four convened at London’s Café Oto in October, 2011 for two nights, a set of which was released last year as a limited edition LP; the second release by the Otoroku label. Now comes this 2 CD set which reissues the set captured on the LP and adds the full two sets and encore from the second night of their run. The 37 minute set captured on Disc 1 starts with the pinched cries of McPhee’s pocket trumpet ringing out against the knell of Noble’s cymbals, Edwards’ warm, plucked bass, and the atmospheric hinted quavering of B3 and slowly, patiently builds from there. The four know how to let things ride, placing phrases against the flow with each of the musicians rising to the foreground and then settling back to collective interplay. Then, at about a third of the way in, things take off as Hawkins tosses sheets of cascading chords against thundering drum salvos and thrumming bass, building density which is cracked open by McPhee’s clarion trumpet. When McPhee switches to acidic alto saxophone, things open up to a simmering strut; the four then fracture the improvisation, opening space for an extended drums and bass duo. The four build on the peaks and valleys of the constantly evolving arc, charging their way to a torrid finishing stretch.
The sets from the second night sound even more assured, with all four settling in quickly. McPhee sticks mostly to alto and his playing is imbued with even more explosive intensity than the set from the first night. They all seem to push a bit harder, driving to energized, torrential peaks while still letting the music open up. While touching on the traditions, they continually subvert them, hinting at grooves which explode into free-form; turning the conventions of lead voices and rhythm section on its ear by hitting hard on traditional roles and then veering off to give each instrument equal weight. Check out the middle section of the second set where Hawkins’ skittering organ coloration provides a ground for the exchange of bass and drums which morphs into a bass and alto section driven by Noble’s supple jabs and flurries and the welling waves of organ. The 5 minute encore from the second night provides an apt coda to Disc 2. The piece builds a slow, plaintive arc from a wistful theme introduced by McPhee on pocket trumpet which brings the performance to a reflective close. It’s great to have the first disc of this pack in print and the addition of the second set makes this all the more notable.
John Edwards + Mark Sanders + John Tilbury
At this stage in the development of improvised music, it is odd to talk about a piano/bass/drums trio as a radical departure. But it is impossible to think of this meeting between bassist John Edwards, drummer Mark Sanders, and pianist John Tilbury in any other way. Tilbury is indelibly associated with the music of Cornelius Cardew, as a participant in Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, as an interpreter of his music, and as a commanding biographer. He’s one of the preeminent proponents and performers of the piano music of Morton Feldman, and has delivered commanding performances of Samuel Beckett’s radio plays. As an improviser, his approach to piano has been an integral part of AMM since the early ‘80s and his ongoing partnership with Eddie Prévost has produced some of the most memorable recordings of the last decade. But playing in a trio setting with bass and drums? That is hardly a context one would imagine. The choice of John Edwards and Mark Sanders as partners in this endeavor is by turns odd and inspired. Odd in that the two have played together on a regular basis for the last two decades with musicians like Evan Parker, Veryan Weston and Tony Bevan, all of whom are players that nod, at least tangentially, to the energy of free jazz traditions, while extending that vocabulary into the world of active collective improvisation. It is inspired because Edwards and Sanders have developed open ears toward spontaneous improvisation in a broad variety of settings.
This disc captures the trio’s first performance at Café Oto in June, 2013 and from the first notes, the three erase any notion of piano trio conventions. Tilbury’s readily identifiable chiming chords, doled out with measured patience sound against dark groans of arco bass and laser-focused percussive textures and pointillistic gesture. The three gravitate around a considered pacing, with each note and phrase placed against the unfolding layers of activity and silence. The music progresses in ebbs and flows of density and dynamics rather than any concrete notion of momentum, informed by a keen ear for timbral interaction. Sanders’ bowed cymbals shimmer like sine waves breaking into crackling spatters. Edwards’ bass shudders with low end resonance and his arco can move from engulfing warm, full-toned richness to shredded creaks and frayed microtonal harmonics. Tilbury moves seamlessly between the keyboard and the inside of the instrument, always masterfully fine-tuning attack and decay augmented by the subtle use of manipulated tape.
The way they build forceful arcs which open into spare stasis is enthralling. This is particularly true in the second set which starts in a more kinetic mode than the first. Edwards and Sanders seem to dive in a bit harder, but even here, they never rush, never let the sheer physicality of playing subsume the form. Hammered notes release in to damped and prepared textures, metallic sizzles of percussion ply against thundering, repeated plucked bass notes. Where one might expect a burst of energy to mount into a propulsive arc, the three build tensile drama from moments of fractured intensity which break against pools of calm. For the instrumentation alone, this is a noteworthy entry into Tilbury’s discography, but the result is far more than simply a curiosity, bringing out the inherent nature of all of the three players in strikingly complementary ways. Limited to 500 copies, you should jump on this one quickly.