Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vanderslice deadlines/ search for Panda - the band

Playing right now: Von Freeman - Have No Fear
(This Chicago tenor player in an elder statesman in Chicago, where he's admired by free jazz and mainstream folks alike. I was really excited to find this album by him. I've never heard of any of the sideman but they're great: John Young (piano), David Shipp (bass), Wilbur Campbell (drums). Never thought Henry Mancini's "Mr. Lucky" could have this much bite.)

Last week, I got an assignment to preview John Vanderslice's Pittsburgh show - and I thought I had to write the piece within the next 48 hours. Panicked, I happened to have John's number on my cell phone and even though it made me feel a little funny calling him (due to my fanatical feelings for his music) I gave him a ring. 30 minutes later he called back, ready to talk. And talk he did. Man, that guy gives such good quotes. We talked for less than 20 minutes and I got plenty out of him. It should go without saying that I'm totally stoked for the show, which is happening at the Warhol Museum.

Later than night, I reread the email about the article and it looked like I was a week ahead of time. Oh well. A few days later and I might have missed John since his tour is now in full swing.


I guess listening to Vanderslice's new Romanian Names album had me thinking about San Francisco bands (that's where he lives). So I decided to pull out a CD from the mid '90s by an SF band called Panda. They were a male/female group that was into pop hooks wrapped in a rather scrappy garage sound. The self-titled CD was released by Kokopop, the subsidiary of Shimmy-Disc, which was how I got wind of it (I was into anything Shimmy-Disc/Kramer-related at that point).
The album had a song called "Parasol" that was built around a mid-tempo dreamy/nagging two-string guitar riff, and I used to play that song all the time. The problem was that the disc I had was really scratched up, and three of the first four songs wouldn't read on my CD player, and once I even tried to play "Parasol" on a radio show at WPTS, and it skipped.
CD player technology must have improved by leaps and bounds because my current machine played the whole disc with any hesitation. I don't think I heard the song "Ninny Cake Bake" (great call-and-response involving the title) since the very first time I played the disc. It was a good night. Although, I'm tempted to burn the disc just to make sure I have it for all times.
Panda put out another album on Kokopop, which I never bought, but I feel like there's probably a copy or two sitting around a used disc store in town somewhere. In the meantime, I wonder what ever became of Alyssa Wendt, Jefferson Parker, Carolyn Engelmann and Andrew Rush, the four that were Panda. Are you guys out there?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Very Best of Prestige Records: Mandatory Listening

I'm not much for compilations of music that's otherwise available. I'm not opposed to the concept, and I greatly enjoy hearing stuff programmed together. But when it comes to plunking down money, I'd almost prefer to go straight to the original albums and hear the songs that way. But The Very Best of Prestige Records is quite the exception to the rule.
As the Prestige label celebrates its 60th anniversary (well it would, had it survived in its original independent form. Technically it's now owned by Concord, although they're releasing the back catalog.), they've released a 2CD/ 25 track overview of its heyday, from 1949 to 1969. Some of it ranks as some of the most significant recordings in jazz: Miles Davis' first, extremely lyrical version of "My Funny Valentine" which made all the ladies swoon; "Tenor Madness," the only recording that unites John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins; Lee Konitz & Lennie Tristano's "Subconcious Lee,"; James Moody's "Moody's Mood for Love," his reworking of "I'm In the Mood for Love," which he has been playing at every gig sense then; the Modern Jazz Quartet's tranquil and moody "Django."

And that's just the first disc.

I have no idea how Bob Weinstock was able to release such a plethora of albums in such a short time. Regardless, unless you have unlimited funds and time to burn, or you already started collecting the Prestige catalog back in the '80s when they returned to print via the OJC (Original Jazz Classic) series, the prospect of purchasing all these albums seems close to impossible. In lieu of that, buy this set. All of these tracks are mandatory listening for anyone trying to get a thumbnail sketch of '50s jazz. The music leaps out through the speakers with an energy that conveys how new and exciting it was back then when it was being documented for the first time. And that energy hasn't dissipated in the 60 years since. Thelonious Monk sounds so animated as he plays "Blue Monk" and to hear that between a Sonny Stitt/Bud Powell track and a Miles cut, simply boosts it even further.

Image of Bud

Playing right now: John Vanderslice - Romanian Names

(I think I rushed to get a phone interview with Mr. V tonight, when I don't need to write the piece for another week. Oh well. It was good to chat with him.)

I borrowed the Bud Shank 10" from my dad that I referred to in the 4/14 entry. Here's the cover:

Saturday, May 16, 2009

New vinyl on the porch

Playing right now: A CD mix of Satie, from the other room (music to lull a child to sleep)

This morning I was making coffee when I heard the front door thump. It's probably the Post-Gazette landing on the porch, I thought. But it sure would be cool if it was the mailman delivering the new John Vanderslice album that I pre-ordered. (The post office usually makes priority deliveries between 7 and 8 a.m.)
Turns out I was right on both counts: the paper was on the porch but there between the screen and storm doors sat the thing I love to see first thing in the morning - a record mailer. And therein in was a sealed copy of Romanian Names, the aforementioned John Vanderslice album. Hubba hubba.
I've already heard the album because, when I ordered it, they automatically gave me access to a free download (which was the reason I bought it on vinyl; why not have it in both formats?). But I had to play the record over breakfast. It's good and it seems to have a slightly different feel to it. It's not as tense or nervous as his last few albums. Maybe married life has calmed him down. It's still magical, though.
The first 100 people that preordered it got an extra treat - a letter-pressed wallet with a piece of analog tape from the cutting room floor of Tiny Telephone, Vanderslice's recording studio. Unfortunately I wasn't one of the first 100 to order. :( But I'll live.

Friday, May 01, 2009

New releases on Uptown

(I started writing this on Friday, but it didn't get completed until Sunday night.)

For every time that Miles Davis - allegedly of course - reacted harshly to an inane comment from an audience member, for every time that Charles Mingus fired his band only to rehire them the next night, or finished out an engagement by playing solo piano - in other words, while these musicians got away with rash behavior in the name of their art, how many more musicians were given their walking papers simply because they stood up for themselves? How many were told, "Ah, yeah, we'll call you"?

And while I'm throwing rhetorical questions out there, how many "pretty good" albums got lost in the sea of "really amazing" albums during jazz's prime years of the '50s and early '60s? Not every album was Six Pieces of Silver or Saxophone Colossus. But the test of time might show that a record or a musician that didn't exactly measure up to the big guns might still have had something going for them. (To extend that idea further, it seems funny today that Blue Note founder Alfred Lion once described an unreleased recording as such: "This session would be okay for release, but it is just not up to Blue Note standards." Funny because so many unreleased sessions have been dragged out of the vaults and released, many of them good. So maybe "not up to Blue Note standards" still means pretty good.)

Anyhow, all these questions came into my head while listening to two new releases on Uptown Records, Dupree Bolton's Fireball and Lucky Thompson's New York City, 1964-65. Both were musicians who were on the fast track for success that could have put them in league with people like Lee Morgan and possibly, Sonny Rollins (Bolton played trumpet and Thompson played tenor and soprano, like these two respective players). For various reasons, though, things never panned out for either and they're more like footnotes of the era. (Bolton died in 1993, in poor health; Thompson died in 2005 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.) The two Uptown albums act as a way to reexamine them.

The Bolton set opens with the trumpeter playing on a radio show in a sextet lead by tenor saxophonist Curtis Amy. The Amy-Bolton unit had just released an album on Pacific Jazz called Katanga and they play the title track here, along with "Summertime" (cleverly utilizing the Gil Evans/Miles Davis arrangement of it) and "Laura," as well as a blues. Bolton's bright, inventive sound seems like the new logical step after Clifford Brown, and a strong rival to Carmell Jones, the West Coast brass man who released a few albums and Pacific Jazz and joined Horace Silver's group in time for Song for My Father.

But like all tragic stories, Bolton's life didn't follow such a smooth trail. He spent a lot of time in and out of jail, to a point that it seems that he was rather unstable during the years he was free, never really capable of getting his life back in order. A particularly sad tale recounted in the CD booklet talks about how the trumpeter once badgered Dexter Gordon to hire him and insulted the great tenor player refused. Dexter responded to the insult with an angry rejoinder from the stage.

Two tracks on Fireball come from an aborted session lead by alto saxophonist Earl Anderza, where the two horn men argued about solo space and producer Dick Bock finally called things off. Before he did, they managed to capture two strong tunes, including the ballad "Midnite Lament," which shows off Bolton's lyrical smarts.

The rest of the disc is taken up by some recordings Bolton made as part of the Oklahoma Prison Band while incarcerated. Sloppy at times, with one melody sounding like something off a Chuck Mangione album, and another welding a new melody to Miles Davis's classic "All Blues" chord changes, they do offer a better understanding of a musician that even those in his scene didn't really know. The booklet helps with the background info, and includes an exhaustive 40 pages full of biography (writer Richard Williams really went out on a limb to find out about the trumpeter), photos and reviews from downbeat of live Bolton performances.

Tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson played on two seminal recording sessions in the early '50s: Thelonious Monk's final Blue Note session, which included a few of the pianist's most odd ball early compositions which he would never revisit; and the Prestige session that spawned Miles Davis' "Walkin'" and gave the Prince of Darkness a new musical lease on life when he needed it. Thompson also recorded on his own, spent a good deal of time in Europe and maintained his own music publishing company to ensure that he wouldn't get ripped off. That latter decision ruffled some industry feathers and helped steer Thompson away playing music actively after 1974.

New York City, 1964-65 features two performances on two discs that reveal both a gifted instrumentalist and arranger in Thompson. The first finds him fronting an octet and playing a set of originals at the Little Theatre from a series of "Jazz on Broadway" concerts produced by famed critic Dan Morgenstern. The opening and closing theme for the set has a rich sonority similar to Gerry Mulligan's tentette recording. "Minuet in Blues" has a multi-section design that might sound a little disjointed but still makes for interesting listening, as does the 12-minute big band bop of "Firebug." Thompson's band includes pianist Hank Jones and bassist Richard Davis.

The original "The World Awakes" appears on both the octet concert and the 1965 performance on disc two at the Half-Note, recorded for radio with host Alan Grant, just like the John Coltrane two-disc set that came out a few years ago. Both versions of the song have Thompson on soprano sax, which he had picked up in Europe, oblivious to Coltrane's use of the straight horn here at home. Thompson's melodic approach was a far cry from Coltrane's - the latter came out of the big toned style of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins - but his soprano tone sounds similar, especially on the Half-Note set. The tune begins on a vamp before going into blues changes for the theme, yet it doesn't have a derivative or trite feeling to it.

With a quartet of George Tucker (bass), Paul Neves (piano) and Oliver Jackson (drums), Thompson tears through "What's New," Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird" and "Strike Up the Band." Between songs, he makes gracious banter with Grant, who sounds almost too casual as he chats up the group. Both discs clock in around 40 minutes each, just a little too much to have crammed it all onto one disc. Despite the wealth of material, they leave you wanting more since both sets end right at a point where Thompson sounds like he's really warmed up. It's easy to say the album served its purpose - to generate more interest in an unsung talent.

Bolton's disc might not be as consistent in terms of the music's strength but it too could compel listeners to look for the Curtis Amy Mosaic Select box, which contains Katanga, or to hunt down Harold Land's The Fox which also featured Bolton.

You have to wonder why these guys fell through the cracks while others were lucky enough to see their stars shine. If Dupree Bolton had straightened himself out or found a benefactor, who knows, he might've gone onto be like Frank Morgan or Art Pepper - a survivor of the dark side of jazz who could channel that history into his music. Had Thompson stayed in Europe, he might still be alive today.

But what ifs don't sell CDs. Hopefully enough curious ears will find it worthwhile to check these discs out.
(Neither disc seems to have a website listed for Uptown Records.)