Friday, February 25, 2011

Early Morning, as it rains

My review of the Jake Fryer/Bud Shank CD is up on the JazzTimes website right now. Check it out here. I figured it might get a few more hits from that page than if I just put it up here. There is at least one more disc I'm going to review for the website, and a few I want to do for here. Plus I have a couple things to write for Blurt. My problem is that I have all this I'd like to write and I get up early to get a fresh start on it, but I don't have the clarity of mind at 5:30 a.m. to remember what I have to do. Guess I ought to just make a list the night before.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

I rocked then I got rocked

Playing right now: Eric Dolphy - Last Date (Fontana)

For some reason I thought Nathan Davis played on this session, but I think there was some stretching of the truth with this album, that it's not actually Dolphy's last recording date (it's a live performance) and that maybe there was a studio date after this. It's odd to hear Han Bennink sounding so grounded and boppish. Knowing how wild he can be these days, this performance almost holds the group back. Bennink is solid but almost stiff or nervous.

Wednesday night, the Love Letters returned to Rock 'n Bowl. We played there almost a year ago to the date, give or take about eight days. Snowmageddon hadn't completely subsided at that time. Aimee couldn't dig her car out so I had to pick her up. There was a light sheet of ice all over the sidewalks near Arsenal Lanes. To top things off, I hadn't had a chance to make myself some coffee so I was going through a bad caffeine withdrawal and felt miserable all night. Until we got paid, and we made what I consider some good money. Then I reconsidered everything.

This week it was a beautiful, balmy 40 degrees, no snow, slush or ice in sight. We decided that rather than writing up a set list, we'd put all the songs we wanted to play into a hat. We encouraged people to help us out by fishing them out, and a few people obliged, which was a pleasant surprise. A lot of times at Rock 'n Bowl, people just bowl without any regard for the rock. A couple gals were actually dancing to us. And we didn't end up playing all the slow songs or all the songs in G in a row, so the set held together pretty well. Another key: pick two titles at once, so there isn't a lull between each song.

Arsenal closes at midnight, so we were out the door and packed up by that time. That allowed me the chance to catch half a set by Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds up the street at Howler's. During one song, I reminded myself, oh yeah he was in the Cramps - no wonder he can make one chord sound so good. There was a lot of primitive stomping going on and it worked really well. I regret that I walked in right as the band was wrapping up their take on the Gun Club's "For the Love of Ivy." Wish I could've heard all of that. They encored with "Sex Beat" in which Kid sounded a little more like Jello Biafra than Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but it still got everyone up and screaming.

Driving home I had to open the car window because the residual smoke was so strong that it felt like being in a car with someone who had a lit cigarette. My hat and beret spent the night on the porch, airing out.

Friday, February 18, 2011

You're hearing George Shearing... no more

I forget what night I saw it over the last weekend, but we were watching the news or the Grammys and they streamed info at the bottom of the screen saying that pianist George Shearing had passed away at age 91. I always, as this blog shows, feel affected by the death of a jazz musician but this one had a bit of personal connection.

My parents dug Shearing and his name was always synonymous in our house with the folks' idea of good jazz (more melodic stuff than harmonic complexity, and much of which came from the West Coast). I still recall the Christmas that my mum got Pop a copy of The Swingin's Mutual, the album Nancy Wilson made with the Shearing group.

During his years on Capitol, Shearing made a lot of easy listening albums that involved mellow brass or strings, with some comely lass posing on the album cover. (In the opening of the hotel room scene in A Hard Day's Night, either Paul or his grandfather is holding one of them. Product placement for Mums and Dads in the audience at the matinees?) These albums are now pretty much a dime a dozen, right next to the Herb Alperts in the thrift stores, and they don't paint a definitive portrait of the British pianist.

The best way to find out what put Shearing on the map is to find his MGM sides with the first quintets, which included guitar and vibes. There, you hear his remarkable melodic skills as well as a sharp, incisive ear for arrangements that broadened the spectrum of how groups like that played. The approach was known as "locked hands," where the left hand of the piano carried the melody, which the guitar and the vibes doubled and harmonized. The beauty of the whole thing is how subtle it is. It tugs at your ear, making you think that something is going on here. It's hard to tell what it is unless you're a musician, and in the end it doesn't matter.

Also, Shearing told me in an interview that he told all his vibes players not to play with the vibrato on, so as to avoid the "yoy-yoy-yoy-yoy" sound that comes from sustained, vibratoed notes. He might've liked it mellow, but not that mellow.

That was around 2000 that I spoke with him, to preview a performance at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. I remember it was a Saturday afternoon, not too long after I started working full time at InPgh that it happened. Other than a Sonny Rollins interview during an internship several years earlier, this was my first time talking to a bigtime jazz legend. Since I wasn't exactly up on the Shearing catalog at that point, I was a bit apprehensive. But we got into a great conversation, where he congenially explained locked hands and myriad other subjects. He was a great guy.

There's a passage in On the Road that also made me think, as a teenager, that maybe Shearing was edgier than I had initially thought. The two main characters are up on speed and they check Shearing out in a club and get completely blown away by the fire he's creating onstage. In fact the scene practically sets the standard for that of any '50s movie that takes place in a jazz club: where some character is getting way to into the music, and keeps yelling stuff like, "Go, daddy, go! Yeah, baby!" with coiffed hair getting disheveled the more he gets into the music. I haven't read On the Road in over 20 years but I think that scene is followed by the realization by Sal Paradise that it wasn't all music that was making him feel that way, but the drugs. And the bringdown has a reflective moment to it.

Still, he could've talked about seeing the Jazz Messengers or Clifford Brown, or even Gerry Mulligan, but no - it was Shearing.

And then there are all those duo albums he did with Mel Torme, which brought together two skilled craftsmens who created something that was really top-shelf. (These are another big item in the family history. We heard them a lot in the '80s before the console broke.) Most memorable to me is their version of "I'm Hip," where Torme pokes fun at goofball jazz fans of his era. Beautiful. I hope they're playing together again somewhere.

Thanks for everything, George. Literally, without you, I don't know where I'd be.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Grammy predictions?

Our PC at home stopped letting us get online about two weeks ago. It looked like a browser problem. Then mid-week last week, it started acting really wonky, warning us that it needed to be defragmented. If this ever happens to you, don't follow the steps because as you might have guessed it's a virus.
My laptop has managed to escape unscathed so far, but it wouldn't let me download a program that's supposed to help to fix it. This all means that I haven't had a chance to do much of anything at home except writing assignments that are for deadlines. Pittsburgh City Paper ran a quickie preview that I did for Kid Congo Powers. He's playing at Howler's on this coming Wednesday. The Love Letters are playing Rock 'n' Bowl that same night, but I'm hoping that I can still make it over to catch the show after we're done since we finish around 11:30.
Soooooooooo, the Grammys are on tonight. I'm shocked that they're letting the Arcade Fire play. Sure, they're nominated for Album of the Year, but that's pretty bizarre too. There are probably a lot of people out there who are going to see watch the band and say, "Who are those people? Does anyone really like them? People only like bands like that because no one's ever heard of them."
I'll probably stick with my usual Sunday night tv: reruns of Mike Hammer with Darren McGavin in the title role (although by now I've seen all of them several times) and Everybody Hates Chris.
Or maybe I'll turn the damn tv off and review albums.
That's my prediction.