Thursday, December 14, 2017

Willie "The Lion" Smith & Don Ewell Grand Piano Duets

Willie "The Lion" Smith & Don Ewell
Grand Piano Duets

This joyous piano collaboration between one of the great stride piano legends and one of the great two-fisted traditional pianists was recorded in 1967. Patrick Scott observes this is music "to be listened to and not written about." He also notes that The Lion is on the left channel and Ewell on the right, but at times where one will be incapable of telling them apart. They had never met until brought together for a 1966 Canadian TV show. This is the second of two albums by the two, and another welcome Sackville reissue from Delmark.

Musically, the mood is set with a blistering, stomping "I've Found a New Baby," followed by a relaxed but also playful, "A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid." The interplay between the two on the opening of "I Would Do Anything For You," the wistfulness of "Some of These Days," and then the breakneck tempo of "Just Me, Just You." "Everybody Loves My Baby," is taken at a relaxed tempo with stunning playing. "Keepin' Out of Mischief," has an interjection from the Lion as the two trade lines at a relaxed pace before "Sweet Georgia Brown," that starts in a sedate manner before the two transform it as a lively stomp.

The fact that this is such fun listening should not detract from the fact that there is some serious music being played as well by the two masters of early piano jazz style.

I received my review copy from Delmark. Here is a clip of Willie "The Lion" Smith performing and a clip of a duet by Don Ewell with pianist Dick Wellstood.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Vein Plays Ravel

Vein Plays Ravel
Challenge Records

Comprised of pianist Michael Arbenz, drummer Florian Arbenz and bassist Thomas Lähns aim to achieve with their music - their understanding of music - is nothing less than the greatest possible balance of their three voices - not simply the musical interplay of a piano trio. This genre-bending trio turns their focus in the present recording on the works of the impressionistic French composer Joseph Maurice Ravel. One of the most enigmatic figures of classical music, Ravel lived in an era during which tradition transitioned into abstract modernity and he encompassed many styles of music into his compositions including baroque, Spanish music and jazz. In a similar fashion, VEIN breaks new ground without rejecting the traditional values of jazz. This album also features one of Europe's most distinctive saxophone voices, Andy Shepard.

Certainly the trio's dazzling musical approach is evident on the three pieces from "Le Tombeau de Couperin." On the opening "Prelude," their romanticism isn't inhibited from liveliness of their improvisation. It is followed by the lyrical, meditative "Forlane," with the interplay of Michael and Lähns complemented by Florian's adept use of brushes. The adaptation of the final piece "Toccata," is primarily a duet between the brothers with Florian very prominent here. "Blues" is taken from a violin sonata and anchored by Lähns's arco playing with Michael's use of riffs, single note runs and chords supported by an a temporal employment of cymbals.

"Bolero" is the most familiar, and iconic, of Ravel's compositions, and one of the two tracks on which saxophonist Shepard is featured, along with a horn section that expresses the opulent orchestral aspect of this provocative work. His saxophone is embedded with the trio as the mesmerizing performance builds in intensity, becoming more heated until reaching an orgiastic climax. Shepard is a wonderful player with a marvelous tone and impeccable sense of dynamics and the interplay of him with trio set against the smoldering fire of the horn section is riveting.

After the fiery "Bolero," "Pavane pour une infante defunte," provides a welcome calm. Shepard returns on "Mouvement de Menuet" from the sonatina for piano, adding the warmth of his saxophone here. The trio is gripping in the closing "Five O'clock Foxtrott," with each member making significant, and unexpected contributions in a performance marked by moments of fire and lyricism. It closes an imaginative take of Ravel's music, true to the spirit of the composer, yet fresh in the adaptation of his compositions.

I received as a download from a publicist. Here is a live performance of Vein performing "Bolero."

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Marc Myers - Anatomy of a Song

Anatomy of a Song
Marc Myers
New York: Grove Press
2016: 323 +xiii pages

Marc Myers is a Wall Street Journal columnist who writes on music and other cultural items as well as is responsible for the award-winning Jazzwax blog. The present book is a compilation of an ongoing column he writes about the stories underlying of the iconic songs of rhythm and blues, country, pop, reggae and more which he tells through the recollections of songwriters, recording engineers and the artists themselves. This is reflected by the subtitle "The Oral History of 45 Iconic Hits That Changed Rock, R&B and Pop."

Myers takes from Lloyd Price's 1952 smash "*Lawdy Miss Clawdy*" to REM's "Losing My Religion." most of the material is taken from actual interviews with individuals such as discussing "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" with Price, Dave Bartholomew and Art Rupe of Specialty Records, providing details of how the song came about. I was not aware that the phrase "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" had been used by a black radio announcer, but I was aware that it was used in an earlier Bartholomew recording featuring Tommy Ridgely (a point not mentioned here). I was not aware of how Bartholomew heard Price at the piano and had him audition for Rupe and then  record it with Fats Domino on piano, Earl Palmer on drums and using a head arrangement. When released, Price had the sole writer's credit, and he made an observation how amazing that was at a time record company folks regularlyclaimed partial writer's credit.

 Discussing Little Willie Littlefield's "K.C. Loving," Mike Stoller gives the primary details on the song that was written as "Kansas City", why Ralph Bass retitled it for release, as well as discussing the Wilbert Harrison hit and how the that version had a slight change to the lyrics and they needed to contact producer Bobby Robinson to correct the writer's credits so they would get their royalties. Also Hank Ballard guitarist Billy Davis and James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis described the versions by their leaders. It is interesting that Stoller discusses that after he and Jerry Leiber wrote it, showing the song to Littlefield and giving cues on how he should play it and then it was recorded at a session led by the legendary saxophonist Maxwell Davis. I do note that, in a Blues Unlimited interview decades ago, Littlefield claimed to have written the song, although Leiber and Stoller have rebutted this claim in the past.

 We get the perspective of Ronald Isley on the Isley Brother's hit "Shout," while Katherine "Kat" Anderson Schaffner," one of the singers of The Marvelettes gives insight on the early Motown hot "Please Mr. Postman," Dion Dimucci details his song and hit, "Run Around Sue," and co-songwriter Jeff Barry (with Phil Spector), vocalist Darlene Love, Dixie Cup singers Barbara and Rosa Hawkins, producer Mike Stoller and musician Artie Butler talk about "Chapel of Love." On this latter number I was not aware that Phil Spector had recorded Love singing it and then The Ronettes, but not happy with it. Eventually the Dixie Cups recorded it with Wardell Querzergue arranging it, with Stoller adding touches, and then after a United Artists distribution deal fell through had to start a label to issue it.

In addition to Keith Richards' recollections of "Street Fighting Man," Jimmy Page recalls the making of "Whole Lotta Love" (where he explains it was Robert Plant's use of lyrics from a Muddy Waters trouble that caused them legal trouble as his riff the music was based on was not similar to the Wille Dixon song they were sued for infringing). Then there is Linda Ronstadt recalling the Stoney Poney's hit "Different Drum," Gladys Knight on "Midnight Train To Georgia," Grace Slick on "White Rabbit," Tammy Wynette on "Stand By Your Man," Joni Mitchell on "Carey," Jimmy Cliff on "The Harder They Come," and Smokey Robinson recollects writing "My Girl" for The Temptations.

I did find a very minor error. In discussing The Righteous Brothers "You Lost That Loving Feeling." In his introductory passage, Myers mentions that the Brothers signed to Philles Records. Interviewed for the documentary "The Wrecking Crew" (and included among the bonus features with the DVD and on iTunes), Bill Medley recalls that Phil Spector leased their existing contract. Medley along with the songwriters were interviewed by Myers, while for The Wrecking Crew, he was interviewed along with the studio engineers. The details on the production of this classic recording are similar, but there seems to be a bit more detail in the Wrecking Crew bonus feature (which likely can be accessed on YouTube).

It is fascinating to read the back stories on so many hit, and iconic, songs. Overall this is a fun, very readable volume that would make a wonderful gift to music lovers. The back cover includes a number of short quotes that will give an idea of the tenor of the 45 highly readable pieces.

I purchased my copy. This is now available in paperback.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Chickenbone Slim Chickenbone Slim

Chickenbone Slim
The Big Beat
Lo-Fi Mob Records

Chickenbone Slim is the alter ego of Larry Teves, a San Diego based musician who started playing guitar in 2011 after playing bass in many bands for many years. Years of playing in a variety of blues and rockabilly bands is reflected in the performances here where he is backed by Big Jon Atkinson on harmonica, guitar and bass; Marty Dodson on drums and Scot Smart on bass. Recorded at Greaseland Studios, Kid Andersen engineered and mastered this and played guitar on one of the nine songs here.

With austere, relaxed backing and Slim's relaxed, unforced and grainy vocals, some of the songs has an ambience similar to the Baton Rouge based 'swamp blues" of Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and others. The opening title track features superb harmonica as well as Slim's own smartly, played solo while "Me and Johnny Lee" is an even better performance in this vein as he sings about being as lonely as he can be as after she broke his heart is just him and Johnny Lee. "Long Way Down" has a bit more grit in the manner of a Tony Joe White, and a biting guitar solo from Scot Smart, as he sings about meeting his lover on the long way down.

The country-flavored "Hemi Dodge," has Kid Andersen on guitar and mournful harmonica from Atkinson, while there is a folk performance with just his acoustic guitar accompanying his vocal on "Vodka and Vicodin," his best friends as he is out of luck. There is an insistent groove to "Long Legged Sweet Thing" as Slim hammers out his vocal against skeletal backing and strong harp, while "Man Down" has a West Side Chicago feel with a boogaloo rhythm.

The closing "Break Me Of a Piece" returns us to the swamp blues vein and ends a most entertaining album of gritty performances that evoke the golden period of fifties and sixties blues.

I received my review copy from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the November-December 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 375). Here is a promo video for this recording.

Andy Adamson First Light

Andy Adamson
First Light
Andros Records LLC

Ann Arbor, Michigan based pianist-composer-bandleader Adamson's influences include John Coltrane, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea and over 50 years worked, and composed, in a variety of styles. This new release has nine of his straight ahead and jazz fusion compositions with a band including Brennan Andes on bass; drummer Jonathan Taylor; trumpeter Ross Huff and saxophonist Dan Bennett.

This is tight quintet that plays strongly on a varied program that opens with the Coltrane-flavored title track that showcases the leader's fluid piano style along with Bennett's robust, high intensity tenor sax. "Corner Store" is a latin-accented number with a nifty piano riff underlying this high-spirited quintet performance with shifting musical textures with Adamson and Bennett soloing. The opening of "Twilight in the Making" has a romantic tone before it transitions into a fusion evoking mode. Bennett's free-sounding tenor interacting with the leader's piano is at the front of "Velvet Sunset," followed by "Divided We Stand." "High Street Roundabout" is another engrossing performance with spirited tenor sax and piano with bassist Andes and Taylor ably backing and complementing them through shifts in tempo and textures from that the Adamson's lyrical improvisation to the more buzzsaw, vibrato-laden tenor of Bennett.

If Bennett and Anderson have most of the spotlight on "First Light," Huff's blistering trumpet is featured on the vibrant hard bop "Sunny Side Up," which also has a brief, taut solo from Taylor. It is a strong conclusion to this very memorable recording of modern jazz.

I received a download to review from a publicist. This review originally appeared in the November-December 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 375). Here is Andy Adamson in performance.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Johnny Rawls Waiting For The Rain

Johnny Rawls
Waiting For The Rain
Catfood Records

Another new Catfood release for the veteran soul-blues singer-songwriter-guitarist Johnny Rawls again backed by bassist Bob Trenchard and the Rays. This one is produced by Jim Gaines and is a mix of originals and interesting interpretations of some familiar songs sung with plenty of heart by Rawls set against the Rays' idiomatic backing that is rooted in the classic Memphis sound of Stax and Hi Records.

Rawls has a controlled style that is akin to the smoldering heat of a pit barbecue than steak over an open flame, though he can let loose when needed.. The title track is a strong original co-written with Trenchard and keyboardist Dan Ferguson as he sings about rain washing away guilt, sin and pain with a crisp guitar solo from Dennis McGhee set against punchy horns. It is followed by the Trenchard-James Armstrong penned "Las Vegas," is a wonderful performance with a backing horn riff reminiscent of "Turn On Your Love Light,"although I am not enamored the lyrics mixing playing games and religion. "Waiting For a Train" from Rawls and Trenchard is a nice low-key number with a jazzy tinge and followed by a wonderful rendition of Bobby Womack's celebratory "I'm in Love."

"Blackjack Was a Gambler" is a terrific easy rocking bit of storytelling about a back alley gambler and rambler while Rawls also ably puts his own stamp on Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," and then does a nice cover of the Tyrone Davis hit "The Turning Point," and a driving rendition of Syl Johnson's "We Did It." The soulful ballad, "Stay With Me," provides a close to Rawls' latest soul-blues gem. Rawls may not break new ground on his latest release, and those familiar with Johnny Rawls will know what to expect on a predictably strong recording, while this serves as representative of his music for those new to his music.

I received my review copy from a publicist.  This review originally appeared in the November-December 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 375). Here is Johnny Rawls from a 2017 Boise Blues Festival.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Junior Wells Southside Blues Jam

Junior Wells
Southside Blues Jam

I purchased the vinyl version of Junior Wells' Delmark album “Southside Blues Jam” upon its original release in 1970. The release was an effort to capture what a listener might hear at the baled Chicago blues club, Theresa’s, on a Monday night when Junior Wells and others including Buddy Guy would be featured. Wells and Guy were joined by Louis Myers on guitar, Ernest Johnson on bass, Fred Below on drums and Otis Spann on piano for what was his last studio appearance on record. Delmark has reissued an expanded “Southside Blues Jam” with the original eight selections supplemented by 7 bonus tracks, one of which is an alternate take, another is a warm-up fragment and another is some studio patter.

It was a recording that was quite easy to enjoy. There was a loose spontaneous feel to the performances that Junior and company put their stamp on starting with a easy driving rendition of “Stop Breaking Down” that Junior learned from the first Sonny Boy Williamson’s recording (adapted from Robert Johnson) to a cover of Guitar Slim’s “Trouble Don’t Last” where Buddy takes the lead vocal with Junior adding a rap to the performance. Topicality was heard in the issued take of “I Could Have Had Religion” where Junior dwells on Muddy Waters being out of action at the time and “Blues For Mayor Daley.” There are covers of songs from Muddy as well as a nice rendition of the second Sonny Boy Williamson’s “In My Younger Days.” Wells mixes his blues harp (very much in the spirit of the second Sonny Boy) with his mix of vocals and James Brown funk while Guy and Spann are in strong form.

The unissued performances have their appeal, although listening to them one can understand why the selections on the original CD were chosen. There is a decent cover of Little Walter’s “It’s Too Late Brother,” with Well’s exhorting Spann to rumble on the bass keys as he talks about the blues being funky. “Love My Baby,” a reworking of Arthur Crud-up’s “So Glad Your Mine,” and set to the “Hootchie Kootchie Man” groove with blistering string bending from Guy and Spann’s rumbling piano behind Wells’ vocal. The alternate of “I Could Have Had Religion” is a more traditional performance about a mistreating woman without the reference to Muddy Waters’ health. It has solid Louis Myers’ guitar, while “Rock Me” is done as a dedication to Muddy Waters. The closing “Got to Play the Blues” is an amusing original set to the groove of B.B. King’s (then contemporary recording), “Why I Sing the Blues” with Wells singing about singing the blues and throwing in impersonations of other singers.

This expanded “Southside Blues Jam” is handsomely packaged (credit Kate Moss) with a booklet that contains Bob Koester’s recollections of the session and Michael Cuscuna’s Rolling Stone review of the original LP release and the sound is quite good. This reissue, with its additional tracks, will be welcome to a wide range of blues lovers including those having the original LP.

I received my review copy from Delmark. This review originally appeared in the January-February 2015 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 358). Here is Junior with Buddy Guy doing "Little By Little" on a PBS show in 1971.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Eyal Vilner Big Band Hanukkah

Eyal Vilner Big Band

Composer, saxophonist and arranger Eval Vilner has come up with a uniquely original holiday offering. His latest re lease is an exciting and festive Hanukkah album, with his 16 piece big band on a repertoire of traditional Hanukkah songs, blending holiday melodies with sounds influenced by jazz and swing, Israeli, Jewish and Middle Eastern music, in addition to Brazilian Choro and Afro - Cuban rhythms. In addition there is a vocal trio on one selection and Israeli flute virtuoso Itai Kriss. It was recorded at one of the oldest synagogues in the U.S. - the Museum at Eldridge Street - a National Historic Landmark dating back to 1887 in what used to be a Jewish immigrant neighborhood and is now Chinatown.

The opening "Prelude" opens as the horns provide a classical choral played by the horns of a traditional song sung every day of Hanukah after the lighting of candles followed by "Maoz Tzur," where the band swings the melody with Vilner taking a fervent sax solo with Jack Glottman taking a crisp piano break with the full and coming across like the 50's Basie Band on the joyous romp. "Sevivon," inspired by the spin of the dreidel, has a strong percussive and Brazilian flavor, including a section dedicated to Batucada music (a drum ensemble) as well as some brilliant flute from, Itai Kriss. A vocal trio of three of NYC’s finest trad - jazz vocalists Tamar Korn, Martina DaSilva and Vanessa Perea, sing the Boswell Sisters inspired vocals on "Oh Hanukah," with a strong tenor sax solo by Evan Arntzen, along with the leader's clarinet break while Vilner's arrangement smartly frames the vocals and the sax solo. On "Mi Yemalel," Vilner plays the shofar to open this musical depiction of the Maccabees and their war on the Greeks who occupied Ancient Judea. Wayne Tucker continues, playing a Taqsim (intro, in traditional Arabic music, which sets the mood of a piece) followed by the harmonized trombone section followed by the saxophones and trumpets playing contrasting melodies.

A joyous bonus track, "These Candles" starting as a march before turning to an Ellingtonian flavored swing number and features the trumpet of Irv Grossman and the break all the doors down tenor of Michael Hashim. It is only available digitally, but complements this wonderful recording of Holiday music. This is available from cdbaby and other sources.

I received a download of this to review from a publicist. Here is the Eyal Vilner Big Band performing "Maoz Tzur."