Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"212 N. 12th" by The Salsoul Orchestra

Today's disco discovery: This great instrumental comes from the 1979 Salsoul Orchestra album Street Sense. It's also featured on the criminally out-of-print CD The Salsoul Orchestra Anthology too.

Vincent Montana, Jr, had already left the group by this point to form his own disco unit, Montana. So the group was turned over to the great DJ/mixer/producer Tom Moulton and arranger/composer Thor Baldursson, who helped fashion so much of Giorgio Moroder's music and would shortly go onto work with Elton John.

Baldursson and Moulton are credited as the song's composers and, together, they craft an effectively TSOP soulful groove with something that hints at the great joys Eurodisco was providing at the time.

Truly, a joy - and one that has already been discovered and sampled by David Mancuso and Danny Krivit.

For the record, 212 N. 12th is the street address of the famed Sigma Sounds studio in Philadelphia where so much great music - like this - has been laid down.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rediscovery: John Scofield “Groove Elation”

This tremendous 1995 recording features the great, great John Scofield on guitar with Larry Goldings – who has never sounded better - on organ and piano, Dennis Irwin (who first worked with Scofield on a 1984 Bennie Wallace recording) on bass and, notably (VERY notably), Idris Muhammad, in his only (!) recording with Scofield to date, on drums.

Coming after a number of the guitarist’s funkier recordings, including Hand Jive (1994), and predating the more renowned A Go Go by a couple of years, this, the last of his Blue Note albums, might very well be one of the best albums John Scofield has ever recorded under his own name – funky or otherwise.

The program is especially well composed. The playing is exceptionally strong. So are the exquisitely performed solos, which, like the best of John Scofield’s work sound nearly composed in their brilliance.

And the compositions – all by the guitarist – are some of his best and most memorable. Occasionally “sweetened” by Don Alias on percussion and a brass section including Howard Johnson, Steve Turre, Billy Drewes and Randy Brecker, this is one for the books and one of the few John Scofield solo albums (Lord knows how many important sessions he has contributed to) that stand the test of time.

For the record, Scofield covered this album’s “Peculiar” on the 1999 Ulrick/Scofield/Danielsson/Erskine album Shortcuts and his recent 54 with Vince Mendoza (which also features this album’s “Carlos”). The rest of Groove Elation’s tunes deserve to be as known – or better known.

A triumph.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Art Pepper “Unreleased Art Vol. V: Stuttgart”

Through the years I’ve had the infrequent occasion to hear Art Pepper’s records. Often, it’s because of someone else I wanted to hear who is featured on the record. I admit that I’ve never been sufficiently moved enough to buy or keep an Art Pepper record, despite the fact that there is no denying his technical facility or the gorgeous sound he made with his horn.

I even remember reading a book last year by one of my favorite authors, Michael Connelly, where his jazz-loving crime-fighter Harry Bosch is relaxing (and understanding a crime) to an Art Pepper CD and I thought to myself that I have really neglected the Art Pepper aspect of my own jazz education and enjoyment.

But, like all the truly great players, there is a plethora of Art Pepper’s music to consider. Where does one begin? Despite drug problems and intermittent prison stays, which kept him pretty much off the scene between 1965 and 1975, the alto saxophonist was recorded in many legitimate settings after 1975 until his 1982 death.

There were also many, many legitimate and illegitimate recordings made of Art Pepper’s live performances. Many more of these have come to light and been issued since the alto saxophonist’s death nearly three decades ago.

“Pepper’s remains one of the most immediately identifiable alto sax styles in post-war jazz,” writes Richard Cook and Brian Morton, the uber-talented wordsmiths behind The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings. “If he was a Parker disciple, like every other modern saxophonist in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he tempered Bird’s slashing attack with a pointed elegance that recalled something of Benny Carter and Willie Smith. He was a passionate musician, having little of the studious intensity of Lee Konitz, and his tone – which could come out as pinched and jittery as well as softly melodious – suggested something of the duplicitous, cursed romanticism which seems to lie at the heart of his music.”

How apt. And true.

Art Pepper’s devoted widow, Laurie, has been doing an extraordinarily loving job of showcasing some of these performances on her own Widow’s Taste label. The latest is this terrific two-disc set, recorded in Stuttgart, Germany on May 25, 1981.

Comprised of several fan recordings - which have been re-mastered to stunningly pristine effect - the performance finds Art Pepper captured remarkably well with pianist Milcho Leviev (the veteran of Don Ellis, Airto and Billy Cobham who, like the bassist here, had played on and off with Pepper since 1978), bassist Bob Magnusson (Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, John Klemmer) and drummer Carl Burnett (The Three Sounds, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Burrell).

This is the same group that was first assembled on a 1978 Japan-only recording (Art Pepper Memorial Collection: My Laurie) and was also captured on the third “unreleased” set issued by Mrs. Pepper’s Widow’s Taste label that was caught live a few weeks earlier in Croydon, England.

The tracks here are all long, resourceful and repeatedly listenable. The program is refreshingly not overawed by the typical bebop warhorses, surely a testament to Pepper’s fundamental creativity, and the abundant Pepper originals are invigoratingly interesting enough to grab and maintain attention.

Pepper’s originals are surely the most interesting performances of the program. First up is the post-bop set-opener of “True Blues” (like “Landscape” and “Over the Rainbow” first heard on the 1979 album Landscape), played with an integrity that suggests Pepper means each and every one of the notes. The moody modal jazz of “Landscape” is the two-disc set’s first notable performance, eliciting tasty solos from all concerned, particularly Leviev.

The disc’s highlight is the exceptionally elongated “Make A List (Make A Wish).” This one has a lot going on that, for its 24 minutes, is worth revisiting time and again. Both pianist Leviev and Pepper offer their own encyclopedia of jazz. It’s kind of fun to determine just what – and who? - they are doing throughout their rousing and solidified performances. Laurie Pepper’s beautifully incisive liner notes that “Art’s ‘Make a List (Make a Wish)’ ran long when it was working. It’s working, here, hypnotic, erotic, and funky.” Indeed.

“Patricia,” written for Pepper’s daughter and first recorded on the 1956 album The Return of Art Pepper, is a touchingly sensitive performance that yields to a gospel fervor in its last few moments. “For Freddie” (first heard on one of the famous 1977 Village Vanguard recordings Pepper made with George Cables, George Mraz and Elvin Jones) was originally written for a chef named Freddie and ended up becoming a tribute to Freddie Hubbard. Oddly, Pepper and Hubbard , who became friends, were only recorded together on the trumpeter’s underrated 1980 album Mistral. This marginal tune and its performance here never suggest Hubbard. Unfortunately, neither rises to the level the rest of the concert achieves.

The gorgeously romantic “Yours Is My Heart Alone” (like “Patricia,” “Cherokee” and “Make A List,” also captured on the 1981 Croydon, England, set - Unreleased Art Vol. III) is handled like a bop bossa but provides a sensational turn for Pepper, who seems to be racing to include a plethora of romantic ideas and emotions.

Al Jolson’s “Avalon” goes all the way back to a 1952 album with Shorty Rogers that also featured “Over the Rainbow” but this seems to be the first time the alto player performed the song on clarinet. It doesn’t sound like it would work. But it’s an exceptionally lovely performance that doesn’t yield to nostalgia as much as it would suggest. Pepper’s playing swings with delight and such beauty that it’s unfathomable he didn’t play the clarinet more often.

“Over The Rainbow” (which Pepper first recorded with Stan Kenton in 1947 and performed and recorded frequently up until the time of his death) gets an impassioned and fortunately atypical performance of someone who knows the tune and plays it as if they well know, very well know, what it means. The rhythm section, too, responds in kind. This is not a warhorse. It’s a poetic performance.

The set closes with a fiery take on “Cherokee,” which Pepper first waxed with Shorty Rogers in 1951. Pepper seems to be channeling John Coltrane’s Impulse period here, a time when Coltrane was redefining jazz and when, curiously, Pepper was off the scene. But it does something to invigorate the tune. The rhythm section gets as fired up too, aiding Pepper (almost) out into the stratosphere. It’s a marvelous way to close the set and a suitably spectacular way to end to a very rousing performance.

For me, Unreleased Art Vol. V: Stuttgart was a marvelous introduction to the world of Art Pepper. For fans and listeners more familiar with the great alto saxophonist than I, it would be difficult to complete a good Art Pepper collection without this stimulating and substantial performance.

Visit Straight Life: The Stories of Art Pepper for more information.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot - Series 8

Agatha Christie’s Poirot – An Introduction
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 1
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 2
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 3
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 4
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 5
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 6
Agatha Christie’s Poirot – Series 7

1. Evil Under The Sun (first broadcast April 20, 2001, though the ITV box indicates December 15, 2002): While holidaying at a seaside resort, Hercule Poirot inevitably meets a number of the hotel’s guests, including Reverend Stephen Lane, Emily Brewster, Patrick and Christina Redfern, Rosamund Darnley, Major Barry, Horace Blatt and the actress Arlena Stuart and her husband, Kenneth Marshall. Most seem to be enjoying the repose of the sun and the sea. But many, including Poirot, feel that the presence of evil surrounds them. This is reinforced by Patrick Redfern’s indiscreet carrying on with the married and well-to-do Arlena Stuart. As tensions rise, it becomes apparent that many, like Kenneth Marshall, disapprove of Arlena’s behavior, while others, like Christina Redfern, are disgusted by it. Everyone makes plans to enjoy a particularly beautiful morning one day while Poirot himself witnesses Arlena boating to a remote cove with the obviously untrue request to be left on her own for once. While supposedly boating casually around the island with Emily Brewster, Patrick Redfern discovers Arlena lying on the beach at the quiet cove only to find that she’s dead. Someone has strangled her. Redfern sends Miss Brewster back to notify the authorities. Poirot thinks he knows who committed the murder. But the clues he finds point away from his suspicions and lead him to discover a web of deceipt and even uncover a drug smuggling racquet.

First published in 1941, Evil under the Sun is an economic and elegant whodunit very similar in many ways to Agatha Christie’s earlier short story Triangle at Rhodes (1934). The novel references such earlier Poirot escapades as Death on the Nile, in Chapters 1 and 2, and Peril at End House, with the appearance of Colonel Weston in Chapter 5, reminding the reader of “that affair at [nearby] St. Loo” (several references are also made to the hotel’s proximity to Dartmoor and a certain Sherlock Holmes tale of note). The novel was first filmed in 1982 with Peter Ustinov in his second and best of six performances as Poirot and featuring a most remarkable all-star cast (Diana Rigg, Maggie Smith, Jane Birkin, Roddy McDowall, James Mason and Sylvia Miles), an exceedingly inventive adaptation by Anthony Schaffer (the Sleuth playwright also wrote the 1978 screenplay for Death on the Nile and did uncredited work on the 1974 script for Murder on the Orient Express) and some sauve and beautiful direction from Guy Hamilton (one of the notable directors from the James Bond franchise who had also directed the 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d). This particular film adaptation, presented some two decades later, is somewhat closer in tone and tenor to Agatha Christie’s original story, but with quite a number of changes to spice up what is a fairly basic, though inexplicable, but imaginative, murder mystery. It is an especially ideal follow-up to the previous film, Lord Edgware Dies, in that it presents another beautiful, shallow actress who gets an altogether different comeuppance.

Scriptwriter Anthony Horowitz starts with a murder out of the past, as was done in Murder on the Links (1996) – an act which, as before, is covered near the end of Christie’s novel – and devises a framing device allowing the presence of Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp (none of whom feature in the novel). The device is the opening of an Argentinian restaurant, El Ranchero, financed by Captain Hastings. This permits Poirot to contract some sort of food poisoning that is mistaken for health reasons (obesity), forcing him to take a beach holiday. The film, directected by Brian Farnham, is set at the Bigbury-on-Sea hotel on Burgh Island, the same hotel that actually inspired Agatha Christie to conceive of this story – and unlike the unbelievably crappy TV miniseries of Stephen King’s The Shining (1997), which was also filmed at the same hotel where the writer conceived the story (to no good purpose), it is much more notable and interesting, despite some obvious but nicely Deco-decorated studio-based interior sets.

Horowitz borrows several scenes from the previous film, such as the early murder shown at the beginning of the film, Poirot’s crossing to the hotel with the Redferns and the concept of an investment Miss Brewster made in a play Arlena Stuart walked out on (something the Gardeners did in the earlier film). But he deletes the novel’s Mr. and Mrs. Odell Gardener, the unnecessary and insignificant Masterman and Cowan families (hotel guests who were only mentioned once in the novel), Dr. Neasdon and Inspector Colgate (a major character in the novel who is obviously replaced by Chief Inspector Japp in this particular filming of the story). One of the most significant changes Horowitz makes is transforming Marshall’s teenaged daughter, Linda, into his teenaged son, Lionel. This provides the investigators with another male suspect who could have strangled Arlena. Horowitz removes Linda’s goofy voodoo elements (and her attempted suicide) and replaces them with Lionel’s somewhat more realistic fascination with poisons. The dramatist removes a number of the book’s “clues” – including a broken pipe – and settles on a more realistic pair of eyeglasses left at the scene of the crime.

All in all, it’s a most picturesque tale with a diabolical, nearly impossible murder that can really only be speculated at by Poirot. His “proofs” would hardly stand up in any court of law. Even the bust up of the drug smuggling ring is pure speculation that wouldn’t stand up (or exist, really) for anyone who has seen any one episode of Miami Vice CSI: Miami. Horowitz removes the book’s misanthropic and significant idea that bodies roasting in the sun all look the same, which forces the detective here to arrive at the solution to the crime by very different means. This principal agrees with the manner and method that David Suchet prefers to play Poirot. But the solution presented in the film is, perhaps, more weak-willed than the unbelievable pronouncement the detective delivers in the novel. And Michael Higgs, who performs adequately as Patrick Redfern, seems to be the wrong actor for the part in any number of different evaluations. Director Brian Farnham is given some beautiful backgrounds to work with and crafts a postcard-like piece. But, all told, this film isn’t the best the series could have delivered. Indeed, it was probably better suited to one of the series’ 50-minute episodes, despite its novel basis.

Suffice it to say, Evil Under The Sun represented a number of regrettable lasts. To date, this film can be said to be the last of the 11 Poirot scripts written by Anthony Horowitz, the last of the six Poirot films directed by Brian Farnham, the last of Pauline Moran’s 39 appearances as Miss Lemon and the last of Philip Jackson’s 39 performances as Chief Inspector Japp. Hugh Fraser, who has recorded a number of Agatha Christie stories for audiobook release, would appear in only one more Poirot film; the next one, Murder in Mesopotamia. An otherwise nice cast was assembled for this particular film; all of whom seemed game to make it work. But, somehow, they couldn’t out-charm or out-class the previous and far less serious theatrical version directed by Guy Hamilton. Carolyn Pickles (Emily Brewster) also appeared in the 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d as Miss Giles and the 1979 film Agatha as Charlotte Fisher. Russell Tovey (Lionel Marshall) also appeared in the 2008 Marple film Murder is Easy while Tim Meats (Stephen Lane) also appeared in the 1983 Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime episode “The Unbreakable Alibi.”

2. Murder in Mesopotamia (first broadcast July 8, 2001): While on an archaelogical dig, Louise Leidner, the beautiful wife of Dr. Leidner, the head of the expidition, experiences ghostly visions and hears strange noises that cause her great fear and anxiety. Mrs. Leidner later reveals that many years before she had been married, briefly, to Frederick Bosner, a man who turned out to be a spy. She had a hand in revealing him to the authorities and he wound up getting killed for his actions. Eventually, she begins receiving threatening letters from her dead husband warning that if she ever marries again he will kill her. She finds out that Bosner was not actually killed but was involved in a train wreck. It’s possible that he could have escaped the wreck and began threatening her life. It’s also possible that the dead man’s adoring younger brother, William, could be pretending to be the brother in order to avenge his death. After a number of years, the letters stop. Louise finally feels comfortable marrying someone when she meets the well-known archaeologist Dr. Leidner. Then, while on the archaeological dig, the letters begin again. Finally, after feeling terrified for so long, Mrs. Leidner is discovered dead one afternoon. There are no witnesses to the crime and no one saw anyone around the murdered woman’s room at the time of her death. Poirot is asked to investigate.

First published in 1936 after a 1935 serialization in The Saturday Evening Post, Murder in Mesopotamia contains many details derived from the author’s visit to the Royal Cemetary at Ur (Earth’s first known continent) with her second husband, Max Mallowan, and other British archaeologists. The somewhat exotic plot, located at what is often called the cradle of civilization, suggests a very similar device British dramatist Patrick Hamilton used to fashion his 1938 play Angel Street, which was later filmed and has become better known as Gaslight. The book’s “foreword,” provided by “Gilles Reilly, MD” (and pre-dating the “John Ray, Jr.” preface of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita), indicates that the nurse, Amy Letheran is the writer of the story, a first-person account Agatha Christie often gave to Captain Hastings in the Poirot stories. The story’s “poison pen” letters also anticipate the author’s Miss Marple novel The Moving Finger (1942). The story itself is interesting but relies hardly at all on its locale (which the writer unapologetically dismisses in Chapter 7 for those expecting such things) except as a way to suggest “otherness” as a point of provoking fear and terror – something Agatha Christie often did in her many books with so many characters’ constant grousing about “foreigners.” But this adventure is somewhat clever, especially as it is dependent on its location for the effectiveness of the mystery. There are a number of clever turns of phrase in the book (for example, a close look at “Frederick” reveals “Eric”) and the author crafts the detective’s soloution to the puzzle most cleverly. The book also references such Poirot adventures as The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) in Chapter 12 and closes Chapter 29 by indicating that Poirot “went home on the Orient Express and got himself mixed up in another murder,” a reference to the 1934 novel.

This was the last of the 21 scripts provided by dramatist Clive Exton (1930-2007) for the Poirot series. He also “supervised” an additional 11 scripts written by other dramatists. Exton’s storytelling prowess did much to define the flavor and the character of the films, from the very first presentation of The Adventure of the Clapham Cook in 1989 all the way through to this production some dozen years later. Exton wasn’t the imaginative scenarist that Anthony Horowitz is. He was more of a Christie editor while Horowitz was more of an inspired embellisher. But Exton’s stories always stayed remarkably true to Agatha Christie’s vision, if they were unfortunately lacking in the gifted artisty she used in the telling of her tales. After Exton, the Poirot films decidedly turned away from their televisual origins – a character that many dramatic TV shows of “quality” began doing at the time – and pursued the Horowitz-styled embellishments over the Exton-styled austerity. Murder in Mesopotamia is the last of the old-fashioned detective programs and a sort of farewell to a home viewing style that was rapidly seen as staid and slow-moving to a viewing public becoming enured to television’s now prevalent high-octain action, artier/showier direction and rapid-fire editing techniques.

Murder in Mesopotamia is nothing if not old school and contains little that would stir or mystify anyone other than the elderly. The talky plot is, admittedly, tricky to bring to life successfully. But Exton’s script removes almost all the mystery of Louise Leidner; so much so in fact that the viewer cares less about the resolution of her murder than the generally apathetic and, in this case, lifeless characters in the film do. In Exton’s drama, Poirot comes to Iraq in an unlikely response to a request for help from the Countess Vera Rossakoff, who is introduced in “The Double Clue” and factors in several other Poirot stories, but not this particular novel. This puts Poirot on the scene before Louise Leidner’s murder. The book finds the detective passing through the region on another case and he doesn’t enter the story until the book’s thirteenth chapter, about a third of the way through the story. Here, Poirot meets up with Captain Hastings (also not in the book) who is, curisously, a guest of the Iraqi dig visiting Bill Coleman, who here is Hastings’ nephew. Exton also has one of the characters commit suicide, presumably to throw suspicion on their guilt as a murderer or, possibly just to ramp up the action a little bit. In doing so, the script leaves out quite a few of the book’s mostly superfluous characters, such as Dr. Reilly (who introduces both Poirot and the narrator, Ann Leatheran, to the story), the Kelseys, Carl Reiter, David Emmott and French archaeologist Verrier. This makes Sheila Riley of the book into Sheila Maitland of the film, the spunky daughter of (Captain in the book, Superintendent in the film) Maitland.

Directed by TV veteran Tom Clegg, known for his theatrical cult film McVicar starring The Who’s Roger Daltrey, in his only Poirot outing, Murder in Mesopotamia is beautifully highlighted by exotic exteriors filmed in the beautiful Northern African climes of Tunisia and at the Archeological Site of Oudhna. There is much that looks magnificent here, with some particularly nice staging. Unfortunately, it’s all hampered by a cast that doesn’t have much to do and, regrettably, it’s not one of the finest casts ever assembled for a Poirot. Indeed, some of the acting is just awful, made ever clearer by Suchet’s now perfect turn as the Belgian detective. There is some decent acting among the cast. But those that are good enough in their abilities seem surprisingly ill-fitted to their roles. It simply renders the film as one of the lesser triumphs in the Poirot series, particularly among the film-length presentations. Sadly, Murder in Mesopotamia represents the last appearance to date of Hugh Fraser as the hapless but always helpful Captain Arthur Hastings, though Fraser has continued narrating quite a wealth of audio books produced from Agatha Christie’s many books – and where he does a marvelously well-done Poirot himself. Barbara Barnes (Louise Leidner) also appeared in the 1990 Poirot film The Lost Mine as Mrs. Lester and in the 1989 Miss Marple film A Caribbean Mystery as Esther Walters.

Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 9
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 10
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 11
Agatha Christie's Poirot - Series 12

Sunday, May 23, 2010

“Questionnaire” by Chas Jankel

Today's disco discovery: This is probably the very first video I ever saw. And it’s still one of the very best.

The song is also one of the best I’ve ever heard too. Immediately upon hearing this (on HBO, I think), I went out to get this album – which is also tremendously great. It’s also one of those albums that I still have and cherish.

I vaguely knew of Chas Jankel at the time as he was a former Blockhead, who helped create the immediately awesome “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.” Quincy Jones had already had a massively huge hit with Chas' “Ai No Corrida” too.

I had never seen or heard anything like “Questionnaire” before. And this was a real ear-opener. I am shocked it never became the huge hit it deserved to be. It is clever, funny, artful and respectful…everything a great song ought to be.

Chas Jankel sings lead vocals and plays the piano and electric piano. The late, great Ian Dury crafts the incredibly wonderful lyric. Malcolm Griffith plays the lovely but too brief trombone solo and Laura Weymouth (Talking Heads’ Tina’s sister and one of the culprits of the Tom Tom Club) is one of the background vocalists. John Altman (Sam Cooke, Kevin Ayers, The Rutles, Monty Python – and later, Bjork, Eric Serra, Tina Turner and Diana Ross) provides the absolutely perfect horn arrangement.

Chas Jankel was also extremely beautiful. His voice is sexy as hell too. You can see and hear that in this video. He has the most bedeviling smile. And he has a hell of a way with a tune, as “Questionnaire” amply suggests. Enjoy.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

“Tell Me Tomorrow” by Smokey Robinson

Today’s disco discovery: In disco’s waning days, even those lords of pre-disco soul music were still trying to jump on the bandwagon to get a hit. The great, great singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson had surprisingly already scored “comeback” hits with “Cruisin” in 1980 and “Being With You” in 1981, both masterful Quiet Storm templates.

The singer’s few previous attempts at getting down and groove-based music had not really made the headway these lightweight hits had – nor had they captured the attention that such contemporaries as Marvin Gaye and others had found in this realm.

But by 1982, something changed. Either Smokey figured out a way to combine his romantically melodic forces with a flat-out R&B groove or someone did it for him. The result is the majestic “Tell Me Tomorrow,” the lead track and first single from the singer’s 1982 Tamla/Motown album Yes It’s You Lady. However, it turned out to be only something of a minor hit.

The song, oddly enough, is more of a production number particularly fashioned for the romantic crooner rather than something of his own design. Still it's a beautifully romantic piece that has as much jazz as funk going for it. Either way, it’s a great groove and fits him like a glove.

“Tell Me Tomorrow” was written by Gary Goetzman and Mike Piccirillo and produced and arranged by George Tobin (best known later as the brains behind the questionable teen sensation Tiffany). Piccirillo and Tobin, who helped craft “Being With You,” are also well-known for producing hits by Robert Johns (“Sad Eyes”), Kim Carnes (“More Love”), Natalie Cole, New Kids on the Block and others.

The album version of “Tell Me Tomorrow” totals nearly six and a half minutes and features a magnificent, memorable solo from pianist Bill Cuomo. The single release (which is the version I had) featured a 3:48 edit on the first side, with a mostly instrumental version on the second side (fair warning: the edited version without the piano solo is much better known and featured than the full song). Guess which side I played repeatedly?

This was a favorite of mine in 1982. It continues to bring me joy today.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

To Someone

Thirty years ago this month - yesterday as a matter of fact - I met someone who made an immediate, deep and lasting impression on me. It wasn’t love at first sight. It couldn’t be. But it was a little later on. It still is today, despite many a year’s absence from my life.

I don’t presume this person has any of the memory or affection for me that I do. But there are several songs that always remind me that once I knew love. For real, for once.

These are not “our songs” by any consideration. They are really songs I knew well back then that just helped fill a terrible void. Now, even through the sadness and longing I remember all too well, they offer happy memories of a person that was real (at one time) in my heart as well as my life.

They’re also damned good songs. I hope someone knows…

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

“Let’s Go Dancing (Ooh La La La)” by Kool and the Gang

Today’s Disco Discovery: After the fashionable funk of Kool and the Gang’s early days had ended - yielding such great hits as “Open Sesame,” Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” - the group welcomed lead singer James J.T. Taylor, whose sexy appearance and smooth-as-silk voicings helped the group score such super huge hits as “Celebration” and “Ladies’ Night” (and later “Joanna”).

The music got a lot more basic and catchy than this hugely talented musical aggregate was used to. Unfortunately, so did the music of so many of their peers at the time like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Commodores, Ohio Players and so many others.

The great and hugely talented Eumir (“2001”) Deodato was helping guide the group’s success at this point as producer and arranger. With all his skills (he’s much more a talented music colorist than he’s ever been given credit for), he helped KATG simplify their grooves. It was great for sales. But it was probably not so terrific for the talented musicians’ credibility (or ego).

But the group finally took things in its own hands by the time of this 1982 single release. “Let’s Go Dancing (Ooh La La La)” is a rather simple faux-Reggae number that has equal parts basic rhythm and joy in it to sustain it as an R&B-lite dance staple.

It’s really more of a childlike disco number – not quite Reggae, not quite soul, but quite cute and immediately appealing. The group crafts an instantly catchy little melody with easily sing-along words. And, still, it can hardly be bested. Come on, you’ll be singing “ooh la la la” for days!

I loved this in 1982 and it still never fails to satisfy in its melodic and rhythmic pleasures. Ooh-la-la-la, let's go dancing. Ooh-la-la-la, reggae dancing.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Metropole Orkest/John Scofield/Vince Mendoza “54”

This tremendous return to the too-little respected and too-infrequently recorded form of music known as orchestral jazz gets its title by the number of musicians - who total 52 – that participated in the studio recording plus the two leaders, guitarist and composer John Scofield and composer, arranger and conductor Vince Mendoza. Bravo to the leaders for giving credit to all the musicians involved here.

If anyone can make this splendidly contemporary trip down old paths captivating or memorable, it is certainly Vince Mendoza, who aside from such excellent work on his own recent discs, El Viento (ACT, 2009 – also with the Metropole Orchestra) and Blauklang (ACT, 2008), has also scored memorably wonderful recent recordings with Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Joe Zawinul, Bjork, Kyle Eastwood and Randy Brecker.

And if anyone in the current jazz sphere of soloists can make you stand up and take notice, it is certainly guitarist John Scofield.

While the program under review offers up no new material, it is certainly a stirring set that was worth the effort. This March 2009 recording finds John Scofield revisiting his own “Honest I Do” and “Twang” (both heard first on the 1992 CD Grace Under Pressure), “Imaginary Time” (first appearing on the 1993 CD What We Do), “Out of the City” (originally on the 1994 CD Hand Jive), “Carlos” and “Peculiar” (both originally heard on the 1998 Blue Note CD Groove Elation), and “Polo Towers” (first heard on the 2001 Verve CD Uberjam).

Vince Mendoza rescores his own “Jung Parade” and “Say We Did,” both of which were first heard on the 1991 Japanese-only CD Instructions Inside, which also featured John Scofield as a soloist (the two leaders were first recorded together on Vince Mendoza’s 1989 album Start Here).

Mendoza arranges the bulk of the material, while keyboardist Florian Ross arranges “Imaginary Time” and keyboardist Jim McNeely is listed as arranger of two tracks (despite one of the credited tracks not existing on the CD).

On the whole, both Scofield and Mendoza are exceptionally imaginative – and not necessarily at the same time. It’s as if neither wants to get in the other’s way. Mendoza’s orchestrations often shine when Scofield’s soloing is merely up to par. Take, for example, the superbly colorful “Carlos,” the brassy second half of “Twang,” the brilliantly Ellington-esque way Mendoza handles “Peculiar” (which elicits a particularly funky un-Ellington guitar solo from Scofield, worth further investigation, and Hans Vroomans’ inspired organ solo).

And vice versa. Scofield himself shines superbly throughout, but never as exceptionally as on “Jung Parade” and the first half of “Twang.”

The two collide terrifically in their collaboration on the near Blaxploitation groove of “Polo Towers,” the glitzy near Mancini-esque sheen of “Out of the City,” the lush, gorgeous and too-jagged-to-be-a-soundtrack-cue, “Honest I Do,” the superbly imaginative, yet too brief “Imaginary Time” and the delicious collaboration - dominated by Mendoza’s lovely charts - that is “Say We Did.”

Mendoza has always been particularly adept at beautifully coordinating acoustic and electric elements. And Scofield’s often funky fusion tendencies allow the arranger to provide several colorful scores that recall some of the best work of such under-sung 70s arrangers as Johnny Pate, J.J. Johnson, David Matthews, Gene Page and David Van DePitte. But there is also a great sense of the historic work such 60s background soundscapers as Oliver Nelson, Lalo Schifrin or Gary McFarland crafted in their day.

Like partners in crime, John Scofield and Vince Mendoza paired together makes a great deal of sense. These are artistic temperaments that are well-suited to one another. Unlike the exceptionally enjoyable partnership Scofield forged with Marc-Anthony Turnage on the 2003 disc Scorched (Deutsche Grammophon), there is a chemistry on 54 that works not only as a fun listen but also as an accomplished and solidified piece of contemporary orchestral jazz. One can only hope there is a lot more of this in store.

Very highly recommended.

Hank Jones - R.I.P.

Hank Jones, pianist and jazz legend, beloved husband of Theodosia, dear uncle to his nieces and nephews across the country, friend to music, inspiration to countless musicians, died May 16, 2010 in New York City, after a brief illness. He was 91 years old, and would have been 92 on July 31st.

Jones' longtime manager and Justin Time Records representative Jean-Pierre Leduc reflects "Today we celebrate his spirit, his gift, his joy, his wisdom and his friendship. Hank lived and breathed music, and was never far from a keyboard, even at the end. His incredible burst of productivity these last few years - concerts, recordings, fundraisers, clinics - was unprecedented and truly remarkable."

Born in 1918 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Hank Jones grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, the eldest of the acclaimed Jones Family, which included trumpeter, composer and bandleader Thad Jones and drummer Elvin Jones.

Jones started playing in local bands in Michigan, Ohio and Buffalo before moving to New York City in 1943. His first job was with Hot Lips Page at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street where in 1945 he joined Billy Eckstine's big band. The following year he joined Coleman Hawkins and from 1947 to 1951 he toured the world with the Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) accompanying Ella Fitzgerald. In 1952 he joined Artie Shaw and then worked with Johnny Hodges followed by Tyree Glenn. In 1956 he joined Benny Goodman and the CBS studios as staff pianist in 1959, a position which would last for 17 years. Additionally, Jones accompanied Marilyn Monroe as she sang "Happy Birthday Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962.

Although the thought of retirement had crossed his mind, at 87, Jones stayed busy playing concerts worldwide, recording and performing at jazz master classes at various schools, such as Harvard University and New York University.

Always the consummate professional, Hank Jones was one of the last surviving musicians from an era that helped forge this great musical genre called jazz. Throughout his career, Hank played and recorded with a virtual who's who of jazz history. With over five hundred albums and CDs recorded and countless concerts, there are not too many significant names in jazz that Hank did not play or record with. Most recently, he was involved in recordings and performances with the contemporaries such as Joe Lovano.

Jones' recent awards include a Congressional Achievement Award, NEA Jazz Master (1989), induction in DownBeat Magazine's Jazz Hall of Fame (2009), Jazz Journalists Associations Pianist of the Year (2009) and a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award (2009).

Jones released his most recent album, Pleased To Meet You, as a co-leader on Justin Time Records in October with label mate pianist Oliver Jones. Before his death, Jones recorded as a guest artist on a duets album with vocalist Hilary Kole, August 10 release on Justin Time. His final recording is an album of duets with bassist Charlie Haden, due out late this year on Universal France.

He was scheduled to appear at Birdland in New York next week and had performances booked through next year.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Bee Gees? Yes, the Bee Gees.

It’s kind of hard to admit public admiration for these guys. First, it’s probably never been cool to like the Bee Gees. Even when they were ridiculously popular and selling millions of records, hardly anyone admitted liking Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb. They’d already had so many highs and lows before disco made huge stars out of them. Then disco and Saturday Night Fever made the name “Bee Gees” the most reviled name in music history.

Second, it’s hard to find any other internationally famous group other than Abba that was so damnably and intentionally commercial as the Bee Gees. They almost invite their own scorn. Some of their music is so saccharine and syrupy that you can gain weight just listening to it.

But still, Abba is now a cult phenomenon and their music got turned into a hugely successful Broadway play and, later, a shockingly star-studded motion picture, Momma Mia. So why is it that the Bee Gees can’t have their own slice of the musical pie?

The “B”rothers “G”ibb (which is where the group’s name is derived) never really recovered from the American “disco sucks” backlash, though the group went onto score a number of huge worldwide smashes for other artists (Barbara Streisand, Dionne Warwick and Kenny Rogers) and even copped a few more of their own hits under their own name.

My first experience with the Bee Gees came during the summer of 1975 when “Jive Talking” was a huge hit. This classic tune had a unique rhythm, which I always remember was said to replicate the sound of the rickety bridge the Brothers Gibb heard while crossing over to the recording studio in Miami where they recorded the music from the epic album Main Course. It was and remains a real joy. “Jive Talking” makes me feel the happiness of being a kid and the joy music can bring (at least to a kid who really wasn’t all that happy).

Later, of course, as the Bee Gees grew in fame, my fandom grew along with it. “Nights on Broadway.” “You Should Be Dancing.” “Boogie Child.” “Stayin’ Alive.” “Night Fever.” I thought Saturday Night Fever was the best album ever recorded at the time (I considered it my favorite album for all of 1977, 1978 and 1979). I loved brother Andy Gibb’s 1978 hit “Shadow Dancing” (hilariously used many years later on the "Tom's Rhinoplasty" episode of South Park ). I even adored Barbra Streisand’s 1980 Gibb-fest Guilty at the time. Then there was Andy Gibb’s great and little-known 1980 single “Time is Time.”

My tastes gradually moved away from pop music and the Bee Gees. But I never forgot some of the great melodies the Brothers Gibb crafted. For me these included such magical musical moments as “To Love Somebody,” “Down the Road” and “Edge of the Universe.”

There were also the occasional Gibb moments that caught and captured my attention. I’d like to feature three of these here: Kenny Rogers’ “Eyes That See In The Dark” (1983), Barry Gibb’s “Shine Shine” (1984, with its brilliant counter-melody during the final horn sequence) and the Bee Gee’s own spectacular “One” (1989 - with its two or three bravura dramatics). As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate the remarkable melodies the brothers crafted; guided, I think, by brother Barry. The lyrics often leave a lot to be desired (or questioned). But these melodies – and the heavenly harmonies – are a treasure to behold.

It’s a shame that I can’t compile my own “best of the Bee Gees” – or that some great instrumentalist hasn’t come up with his or her own significant Bee Gees tribute. But many others could and probably would debate on what constitutes the right or the correct Bee Gees tribute. Here are just three tunes that I will always cherish.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Jacky Terrasson “Push”

For his 11th solo album, pianist Jacky Terrasson (b. 1966) opted to "push" himself in new directions. The result was well worth the effort. After a long string of albums on the Blue Note label, the pianist makes his debut on the Concord label, now the definitive home of major-label, mainstream jazz, crafting one of his best efforts to date. The pianist's intention was to go for something different than he's done before – which is both good and sometimes not so good. But the end product is overall a remarkable and highly enjoyable listen.

Jacky Terrrasson has always suggested the crossroads pianism of Keith Jarrett's 70s work and Chick Corea's 80s work, with all the good and the bad that both appellations suggest. But here, he really refines the groove into a statement all his own. Push is made up, mostly (and rather unusually), of Terrasson's fascinating originals and several enchantingly original takes on jazz chestnuts including "Body and Soul" and "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" and two Monk standards, "Ruby My Dear" and "Round Midnight." Backed by a tremendously interesting group including Ben Williams on bass and Jamire Williams (no relation) on drums and several "guests," Terrasson has really never sounded better.

The cleverly titled "Gaux Girl" opens the disc beautifully, suggesting the gospel funk Keith Jarrett has done at his most lucid and soulful. Terrasson shines here, adding brief electronic touches that are one or two steps shy of orchestral, but subtly sweet all the same. The pianist's terrifically snappy "Beat Bop" suggests Oscar Peterson by way of Bobby Timmons, Michel Camilo and Josef Zawinul. A great, yet too brief, performance, it must be heard to be believed. "My Church" presents the pianist at his most soulful. But he tempers his performance with reflective and passionate ruminations that never allow the song to degenerate into mindless funk. "My Church" also showcases bassist Ben Williams most notably. Terrason's sensational "O Café, O Soleil" ends the disc in a most inspiring way, with a fun, intoxicating Calypso groove the worldly pianist has not really expressed so well before.

Monk's "Ruby My Dear" gets a lead performance from harmonica player Gregoire Maret, who transforms this overplayed standard into something wholly new and interesting. Terrasson is more like an accompanist here and simply fascinating – suggesting Bill Evans with Toots Thielemans on 1978's Affinity – but both Terrasson and Maret are consistently more involved and invigorating than their predecessors and yield an utterly exquisite performance as a result. "Carry Me Away," easily reminiscent of Bill Evans at his best (particularly "Waltz for Debby"), is a duo performance with bassist Ben Williams, who suggests Marc Johnson in this performance. But at only a little over three minutes, it seems that both players had far more to offer than what is heard here.

Terrasson's "Say Yeah" is a gospel groover that introduces his minimalist vocals. Again, the presence of Maret references the work of Toots Thielemans, but here the suggestion implies the harmonica/whistler's great body of work with Quincy Jones and, by implication, the great piano work of Bobby Scott. Terrasson cleverly combines Michael Jackson's "Beat It" (unrecognizably) with the evergreen "Body and Soul" – and comes up with a most dynamic performance. Same goes for the greatly involving take on "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," which gets expressively muscular support from both of the Williams in the rhythm section.

So where does Push veer off course? There are only several odd turns here, which probably come as a result of the pianist serving as his own producer. First, there's the unnecessarily showy, near cocktail jazz of "Round Midnight" (referencing any number of pianistic influences). Terrasson can't seem to make up his mind what he wants the overplayed standard to be or where he wants it to go. The curiously attractive "Morning" introduces tenor saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart (of Roy Hargrove's The RH Factor) in his only performance on the disc. He plays well enough. But this song, which appears in the very middle of the album, sounds out of place – even half-thought out. Terrasson, for his part, performs immaculately. While "Morning" is a good performance, it probably just belongs on another album.

Still, at nearly 57 minutes <em>Push</em> seems somehow too short. Though, perhaps, it was wise that Jacky Terrasson didn't "push" it too much. <em>Push</em> is a positive step forward that will hopefully lead this tremendously interesting pianist to even higher levels of musical expression.

Visit Jacky Terrasson on the web here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Lena Horne – R.I.P.

Lena Horne, one of the first black actors to achieve a contract from a major Hollywood studio and not only one of the most beloved entertainers in the world but also an important civil rights activist, died on Sunday night at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She was 92 and lived in Manhattan.

Ms. Horne was a consummate star who appeared in many musicals in the thirties and forties including Stormy Weather, which yielded her a signature theme. By the 1950s, Ms. Horne began concentrating more on her singing career and only returned to film for 1969’s Death of a Gunfighter and as Glenda, the good witch, in 1978’s The Wiz. She then stormed Broadway in 1981 with the wildly popular Lena Horne: The Lady And Her Music and went onto record some of her best music for the Blue Note label in the 1990s.

I spoke with Ms. Horne several years ago about her performances with guitarist Gabor Szabo, whose musical journey I’ve chronicled at Gabor Szabo: Iconoclasm. I’ll never forget the day the phone rang at my day job and a voice said to me “Douglas Payne? Please hold for Lena Horne.” Like a stage entrance, it was an announcement that nearly demanded applause.

Since I didn’t even know she was going to call, I was completely unprepared for the conversation. So in my star-struck frenzy, I muttered and stuttered until I realized she was the friendliest, loveliest person you could ever want to talk with.

In late 1964, the Chico Hamilton group of which Gabor Szabo was then a part was in London backing Lena Horne at the Talk of the Town club and recording some striking music to Roman Polanski's film, Repulsion. Hamilton had performed behind Ms. Horne many times before, but this was the guitarist's first collaboration with Ms. Horne, a musical relationship which would elaborate and deepen in the coming years.

By the end of 1969, guitarist Szabo was teamed with the legendary singer for a classic performance in the album Lena & Gabor. The perennially popular and well-liked record proved to be an ideal showcase for Szabo, who is heard to be a gifted and most sensitive accompanist.

For Lena Horne, it was an opportunity to reach a younger audience with more contemporary material (by the Beatles, Michel LeGrand, Burt Bacharach and Harry Nilsson). While the two had performed on stage together in the past, this collection presented the first opportunity for record buyers to hear how special their collaboration was.

The following year, the two reunited on Ms. Horne's television special and were seen and heard again together on a 1973 episode of The Flip Wilson Show.

My conversation with Ms. Horne became more about her warm reminisces of Gabor Szabo and what she called “his soulful playing.” And when Lena Horne says that, she means it. You can feel it. She also had so many good memories that she would add to the conversation about so many of the other people she knew and worked with over the years. She was a delightful human being and I was so happy she sat and talked with me about her amazing life for a few minutes.

Obituaries: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

"Walk A Thin Line" by Mick Fleetwood

Been diggin’ great pop melodies and covert pop brilliance lately and this one really comes up aces on all fronts.

From my days of buying just about any record that came out, this is from Fleetwood Mac founder Mick Fleetwood’s 1981 solo debut The Visitor - which, to my knowledge, has never made it onto CD. An attempt to capture the musical sounds of African percussion, the veteran rock drummer crafted a great album of his own that had little to do with the arena-pop music his money-making band was producing at the time.

The album’s highlight is the terrific “Walk A Thin Line,” written by Fleetwood Mac’s remarkably excellent penman, Lindsey Buckingham (“Monday Morning,” “Second Hand News”). Buckingham’s song originally appeared on Fleetwood Mac’s ambitious album Tusk (Warner Bros., 1980). But Fleetwood reconfigured it here most beautifully.

The song is voiced – rather magically - by George Hawkins, Jr., a bassist, guitarist and vocalist for Kenny Loggins and a session player on many huge hits by Sanford/Townsend Band, Firefall, Stevie Nicks, Gary Wright and The Monkees (he was also on the Kenny Loggins/Stevie Nicks hit “Whenever I Call You Friend”).

The late, great George Harrison is on background vocals as well as playing the lush 12-string guitar and the audibly delicious slide guitar heard here (he is also said to have played on the Fleetwood Mac original). The Ghanaian Adjo Group chants the beautiful background vocals.

It’s a lovely performance. “Walk A Thin Line” was also issued as a single at the time and for its pure pleasure, it is a song that deserves to be much better known than it is.