Monday, August 15, 2016

Philly sound

The avant garde's leading exponent of free funk, the late Byard Lancaster, seen in 2007. Lancaster was a fan of both Archie Shepp and James Brown. Photo by Lester David Hinton 

Here's a record I bought in a little record store just off Central Square in Cambridge back in the mid-'70s. The place was only open for a summer and didn't have much stock, but it did have a quirky jazz section that had a surprising number of musician-produced LPs. You know – the music that gets called "spiritual jazz" for some reason these days. This album caught my eye because its saxophonist was a sideman on a Sunny Murray record I'd recently purchased. His name was Byard Lancaster and he played screaming alto in an intense, take-no-prisoners style. The album was on Dogtown Records, a company based in Philadelphia, Lancaster's hometown. I put down a couple of bucks and took it home.

Co-leading the group presented on the LP was James Roland "J.R." Mitchell, also a Philly native and a percussionist with whom Lancaster had attended Berklee College. I'd never heard of Mitchell, but I was pleasantly surprised by his powerful, tasteful style. He was more straight-ahead than Sunny Murray or Steve McCall, but he could also go out, following Byard (spelled "Bayard" on the cover) wherever the flamboyant saxophonist took the music. One thing I wasn't expecting was to hear Lancaster solo on trumpet. I don't recall if he plays that instrument on any other records of his that I've acquired over the years, but he does a competent job here. He also serves up solos on flute, bass clarinet and soprano in addition to his regular alto. The saxophonist and drummer are joined by bassist Jerome Hunter and pianist Sid Simmons, both also from Philadelphia, comprising a quartet which the album liner notes call the "Experience." 

Oddly, most of the music heard was recorded in concert at MacAlester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Why J.R. and Byard chose to record so far from home is a mystery, but maybe the school offered to professionally record the performance as part of the deal. Whatever the story was, the recording quality is first rate (not always the case with "spiritual jazz" albums). One other selection was recorded closer to home in Boston, in 1970 when Lancaster and Mitchell were Berklee students.

So here's the J.R. Mitchell/Byard Lancaster Experience live in concert. Sound quality is very good with little cleaning required. As always, ripped from the original vinyl, I kid you not!

J.R. Mitchell/Byard Lancaster Experience
Live at MacAlester College '72
Dogtown Records (no #)

Byard Lancaster, as, fl, b cl, sop; Sid Simmons, p; Jerome Hunter, b; J.R. Mitchell, d.
MacAlester College, St. Paul, MN; 1972; Boston, MA; 1970*

1. 1324*
2. Last Summer
3. War Lord
4. Live at MacAlester

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Monday, June 27, 2016

On the house

Willis Conover shills for Miller beer on "The International Hour: American Jazz" in 1963. Conover was the CBS program's host. Unknown photographer

How many of us know what it means to labor in the vineyards for most (or all) of our lives, unacknowledged and uncredited? I don't know about you, but I sometimes feel that way. Not that I've accomplished anything terribly remarkable in my time on terra firma, but still it's nice to get a nod every now and again. 

Sorry to be a whiner, but this month's Gems offering was created by jazz guys who made a career out of the music without ever getting much in return. They all made a living (probably), and they got to do what they loved every day (or night). But nobody got rich and nobody got famous. They did get to make one record, though. That's something.

You've heard of Willis Conover, the legendary jazz host of Voice of America, emcee of the Newport Jazz Festival and interviewer. In 1951, several local musicians – drummer Joe Timer, tenor man Ben Lary and pianist Jack Holliday – approached Conover in Washington, D.C., (where he was based) and pitched the idea that the DJ front a jazz orchestra that they wanted to put together. Conover agreed, and the result was THE Orchestra, caps intended.

Trombonist Earl Swope
Assembled from D.C. musicians who had played in the bands of such luminaries as Boyd Raeburn, Woody Herman, Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet and many more, the 15-piece band boasted solid musicianship, excellent arrangements and a wealth of good (if unknown) soloists. 

Players whose names you might recognize include the Swope brothers, Robbie and Earl, on trombones, baritonist Jack Nimetz and trumpet player Marky Markowitz. Bill Potts, Timer and others did the arrangements. Conover acted as the band's emcee, manager and publicist.

So here's an excellent big band, late out of the gate, that worked around the D.C. area, made this record and then passed unacknowledged into history. There are, fortunately, several amateur live recordings as well, one with Dizzy and another that featured Charlie Parker, that were eventually issued on Elektra (both excellent). But that's it.

So Gems is doing its bit to get the word out about these gents. The music on this album (a generous 45 minutes worth) is thoughtful, well-played and swinging. The record itself came our way in box of contents at an auction, a collection that also included some nice Woody Herman, Claude Thornhill and Nat Pierce's big band at the Savoy. But this one was the gem in the lot. I hope you think so, too. As always, dubbed right from the vinyl with hardy any cleaning necessary.

Willis Conover's House of Sounds
THE Orchestra, Brunswick BL 54003

Bob Carey, Ed Leddy, Marky Markowitz, Charlie Walp, tp; Dan Spiker, Earl Swope, Rob Swope, tbn; Jim Riley, as; Ben Lary, Jim Parker, Angelo Tompros, ts; Jack Nimitz, bar; Jack Holliday, p; Merton Oliver, b; Joe Timer (Theimer), d, cond. 
New York, NY; December 30, 1955

1. I've Got You Under My Skin 
2. One For Kenny (Joe Timer)
3. The Song Is You 
4. Pill Box (Bill Potts)
5. Light Green (Bill Potts)
6. Flamingo
7. Something to Remember You by/Taking a Change on Love/Blue Room
8. Sheriff Crane (Jack Holliday)
9. Playground (Bill Potts)
10. Tiger
11. Moonlight in Vermont
12. Willis (Bill Potts)

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Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tales of Taylor

As a DJ on WLIB in New York City during the 1960s, Billy Taylor played music by his friends and musical associates, and shared stories of the jazz life with his thousands of listeners. Photo from "Jazz: The First Century"

Ladies and gents, Billy Taylor: jazz's forgotten jack of all trades. The guy could play like Tatum, composed and arranged over 300 tunes, performed on hundreds of record albums, hosted his own jazz radio programs locally in New York City and nationally over NPR, did television shows for NBC and NET, created Harlem's Jazzmobile, taught college level jazz courses, and could speak with the erudition of PhD candidate. Wiki says over the course of his career he amassed 23 honorary doctoral degrees. I believe it. 

So why is it that today Billy Taylor is largely overlooked when jazz aficionados congregate? Why isn't his music taken more seriously? Even Oscar Peterson, himself a Tatum follower with a tendency to indulge in easy stylistic grandstanding, gets more props than Dr. Billy. It's a mystery.

I first started listening seriously to Dr. Taylor's music back when he went on air with "Jazz Alive!" on NPR back in the mid-'70s. Every week he featured real jazz players (at least, I considered them so) in live performance. I heard Rollins, Max Roach, the Heath Brothers, Dizzy, Mingus and many others on his broadcasts. But I also heard Braxton, Sam Rivers, Chico Freeman, the Art Ensemble and other leaders of the creative music movement. I taped many of the segments and still listen to them today. Billy may not have liked all the music he featured, but he brought it to the airwaves for all of us to share regardless of his feelings. For that alone, I deeply respect him. Nobody else did that.

But then there was his playing. The guy could play, and while he was not a genius like Bud Powell or a visionary like Cecil Taylor, he could surprise and delight with the best of them. 

Case in point, this hoary Roost recording. A compendium of earlier sessions, the music comes from the early '50s and captures Taylor under the joint sway of Tatum and Powell. His performances are brisk and pyrotechnic, and if you've not really heard his early work before, this LP is for you. The sound is iffy in places, due in large part to a previous owner's bad needle, but I think the download is definitely worth the price of admission. Dubbed, as always, from the original wax, fear not!

Taylor Made Piano 
Billy Taylor
Roost LP 2222

Billy Taylor, p; Chuck Wayne*, Mundell Lowe, g; Earl May, b; Frank Colon, cnga; Zoot Sims, maracas; Charlie Smith, Jo Jones*, d. 
New York, NY; November 1, 1951; May 2, 1952; autumn 1952.

1. Just Squeeze Me*
2. Feeling Frisky (Taylor)*
3. Making Whoopee
4. Tiroro (Taylor)
5. Moonlight Saving Time
6. Cu-Blu (Taylor)*

Billy Taylor, p; Charles Mingus, b; Marquis Foster, d.
Storyville Club, Boston, MA; Autumn 1952

7. I'm Beginning to See the Light
8. All the Things You Are
9. Lady Bird

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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Graas is greener

The notoriously difficult French horn was an unlikely vehicle for jazz performance. But Julius Watkins and the lesser-known John Graas, above, used the modified brass hunting instrument very effectively in the swinging genre. Photographer unknown

This offering comes from an eBay two-fer sale that had a pair obscure John Graas recordings for one low price. A sucker for a bargain, I bid on and won the two discs, one of which is featured here. What did I know about Mr. Graas before I won the auction? Aside from his name, very little.

Turns out Graas studied with Lennie Tristano, that most pedagogic of pedagogues, did concert tours with Stan Kenton and got his start with the pioneering big band of Claude Thornhill. He also gigged with the Indianapolis Symphony and played under Serge Koussevitsky at Tanglewood in the Berkshire Mountains. As you might suspect, he was classically trained and incorporated classical influences into many of his jazz compositions. A Third Streamer he wasn't, but he occasionally crossed that line. He was also Metronome magazine's poll-winner in 1955 in their Miscellaneous Instruments category. The French horn was indeed a miscellaneous ax in those days. Maybe today, too.

So here's John Graas' first Decca release, the initial album in their "Jazz Lab" series, a project they hoped would "act as an incentive for young writers and jazz men to create more individually and freely than ever" (can you imagine a mainstream label embarking on such an endeavor today?). The company claimed that music students could write to Decca for the sheet music to many of the tunes heard here. For the price of a couple of stamps, fans could get copies of John Graas' lead sheets, which seems like a very thoughtful service. Wonder if they actually ever did it?

Included in the ensembles here are the cream of the West Coast's jazz crop – Jimmy Giuffre, Bob Enevoldsen, Dave Pell, Curtis Counce, Don Fagerquist, Howard Roberts, and many others. The music, I confess, is a bit academic in places, a bit too classically conceived for my taste. But some of the other compositions are delightful swingers, and the soloing is top-notch throughout. Mr. Graas himself is especially effective. 

These files, as always, were created right from the original 61-year-old vinyl. A word of warning – there's a bit surface noise throughout Nothing too distracting, but it's there occasionally. I think the music will overwhelm whatever minor aural deficiencies are there. Enjoy!

John Graas

John Graas, fr hn, arr; various groups including Herb Geller ("Bert Herbert"), as; Bob Enevolden, tbn; Dave Pell, ts; Jimmy Giuffre, Ronny Lang, bar; Marty Paitch, Claude Williamson, p; Red Norvo, vbs; Howard Roberts, g; Curtis Counce, b; Larry Bunker, d.
November 28, December 12, 1955; January 9, 1956; Los Angeles, CA; Decca DL 8343

1. Minor Call (Graas)
2. Mozartesque (Graas)
3. Le Chasse
4. Friar Tuck (Graas)
5. Canon Ball (Graas)
6. Pick Yourself Up
7. Andate (Graas)
8. Allegretto (Graas)
9. Softly the Horn Blows
10. Lighthouse 6/4 (Graas)

Find it here:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Deutschland Dateline

Good vibes: Gunter Hampel in recent years, still fighting the good fight for free jazz and creative music. Wonder what's on the iPod? Unknown photographer

Here's one that's been in the collection for decades. Back when I was listening almost exclusively to the so-called avant garde, I was delighted to find this gem in the dollar bins at my local record emporium – Rose Records in the Loop, as I recall. It was one of the first albums I ever purchased by a European artist, and I was very pleased that I did, even though three of its players are stars from the States. Though they weren't really stars at the time.

Hampel and his wife, vocalist Jeanne Lee.
In the '80s, I used to occasionally catch Gunter Hampel in New York, playing with his longtime associates, Perry Robinson and Mark Whitecage, among others. I think, by that time, Hampel's marriage to the stellar Jeanne Lee had ended (I never saw them perform together, much to my regret), and he was mostly leading a motley big band of dubious quality. At the time, at least, I thought his group wasn't very good. What impressed me about him, though, was his absolute dedication to the music. It didn't matter if there were more people on the bandstand than in the audience, he gave it his all. And doubtless still does.

So here's the first release on Hampel's own label, Birth, reissued by Bob Thiele's Flying Dutchman label here in America. Why Thiele put it out is a mystery, but then I guess a guy who releases Coltrane's "Ascension" would have been game for anything. Anthony Braxton is the star soloist while Steve McCall drives everything along nicely with a solid AACM pulse. Willem Breuker gets in a few licks while, surprisingly, Gunter is mostly in the background. What holds all the free improv together is Sister Lee's husky vocalizing – absolutely beautiful! The record is a prime example of the best of the free jazz movement, offering frenetic blowing with subtle, quiet passages and islands of melody engulfed in swirls of poly-rhythms.

So here's one for you progressive jazz fans, even though it's half-a-century old. As always, these files were created from the original vinyl with, in this case, no cleaning whatsoever. Creative music – power stronger than itself!

The 8th of July 1969
Gunter Hampel

Hampel, vbs, p, b cl; Anthony Braxton, as, ss, contrabass cl; Willem Breuker, as, ss, b cl, ts; Arjen Gorter, b; Steve McCall, d; Jeanne Lee, v.
Nederhorst, Holland; July 8, 1969; Flying Dutchman FDS 126
Note: Complete liner notes included in download

1. We Move
2. Morning Song
3. Crepuscule
4. The 8th of July 1969

Find it here:

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Dialing up Roy

Little Jazz blows big horn with the 1953 Metronome All Stars. With Eldridge are, from left, John LaPorta, Teddy Wilson, Max Roach and Kai Winding. The recording date was at Fulton Studios on June 9, 1953, in New York City, not long after the offering in this posting was recorded.

Here's another good'un. I nearly busted a gut when I found this Gem at a local church rummage sale. Original Dial 10-inchers are ultra rare, and what this one was doing in a box of of the usual Al Hirt and Mitch Miller favorites was, and shall remain, a mystery. But there it was, in near pristine condition. I snatched it up and forked over the selling price of four bits without a moment's hesitation. Last of the big spenders!

It wasn't Dial LP1, the first independently-produced long-playing record by Charlie Parker, but it was a genuine Dial, the fourth LP released by Ross Russell, owner of Dial Records. It came out in 1953 and featured trumpet great Roy Eldridge, a compilation of several dates he did while on a junket to Paris in 1950 with the Benny Goodman Sextet. BG and the band did several gigs during the month of June before heading back to the States. Roy, having found Paris to his liking, stayed behind, learned a little French and found a few places to play. He remained for nearly 18 months. Viva la France!

While there, he went into the studio for the Vogue label and cut numerous sessions with both French and American musicians. These sides were selected from dates that featured the Raymond Fol Orchestra, a duet with Claude Bolling and a quartet with Gerry Wiggins and ex-patriot Kenny Clarke. Little Jazz is in top form, sounding like he did fifteen years earlier but with a slightly modern tinge. He also sings a little – listen to his subtlety modified lyrics on "Black and Blue." 

These sides were mostly reissued Stateside back in the '80s on two Inner City compilations, but I just know Gems fans will appreciate hearing them in their (semi) original form. The sound is excellent and required only a few touch-ups. From the original – and I mean original – vinyl, as always.

Roy Eldridge & His Orchestra
Dial 304 (originally on French Vogue)

Roy Eldridge, tp; Gerry Wiggins, p; Pierre Michelot, b; Kenny Clarke, d.
Paris, France; June 14, 1950.
*Eldridge, tp; Claude Bolling, p.
Paris, France; March 29, 1951 

1. Wild Man Blues*
2. Poco Mania (Nuts)
3. If I Had You
4. Fireworks*

Eldridge, tp, v; Benny Vasseur, tbn; Alberty Ferrari, ts; William Boucaya, bar; Raymond Fol, p; Barney Spieler, b; Robert Barnet, d.
Paris, France; October 28, 1950

5. Black and Blue
6. I Remember Harlem
7. L’isle Adam
8. Trumpet Lament (Tu Disais Que Tu M’aimais)

Find it here:

Friday, January 15, 2016

Coming in Handy

What did the guy to the left of the photographer just say? We'll never know, but showing utter consternation are, from left, Dave Lambert, bassist John Simmons, Daz McVoutorooney, George Handy (the subject of this offering) and a zonked Chubby Jackson. Bill Gottlieb photo

How often do you get to live near greatness? And not know it? Not too often, I suspect. In my case, out here in the far-flung Catskills, it happens more often than you might think. Pianist Hal Galper lives in the county. Kenny Werner, too. Guitarist and composer James Emery also lives nearby. Bill Mays plays his piano just across the Delaware in Pennsylvania. Hugh Brodie used to call me regularly from his home in the county seat, Monticello. My good friend, drummer Thurman Barker, lives in the town right next door to mine. There are many other refugees from the New York jazz scene in these rural hills, and at one time or another I've had the privilege to get to know most them.

But one I missed. His name was George Handy, and he was a noted composer and arranger in the 1940s and '50s. He's probably best known for his work with the progressive Boyd Raeburn Orchestra and then for his singular contribution to producer Norman Granz's landmark recording, "The Jazz Scene" (also offered here on Gems). He had a tempestuous relationship with the music biz and made only a few recordings while he was still active in New York and Los Angeles. One of those is featured with this posting.

George bailed on the industry for good in the late 1950s, settling eventually in upstate New York. He chose the Catskills because there was, at the time, a vibrant hotel scene with thousands of tourists and plenty of work for musicians who had tired of the New York City rat race. Handy worked in near anonymity in world class resorts like Grossinger's, Brown's and Kutsher's. He played piano in pit bands, doing arrangements as needed for whatever acts were appearing. 

I was told about George Handy by other musicians I met not long after moving here myself. "You should talk to George," they all urged. But somehow, even after I started doing my jazz radio show, I never got around to it. And then, in 1997, I heard George had died. An opportunity missed, for sure.

But why did Handy opt out of the big music world just 120 miles to the south? I asked a friend, a reed player who worked in the hotel bands with George, and he said it was the usual story, one often told about musicians from Handy's era. Apparently George had picked up a habit, as so many did, and it made him unreliable. He likely moved to the sticks to regain his health.

Dave Schildkraut, looking quite natty.
But in the summer of 1954, when this record was made, Handy was in top form. The dozen tunes on this album, all originals, were all recorded in one long night, as you'll read in the liner notes, and all they were entirely new to the players. The band just played the charts cold and soloed like the hardened pros they were. Handy is on piano, and he gets in a few good licks. The players were some of the best in the city at the time, and the obscure Dave Schildkraut makes a rare appearance. Allen Eager, about to become a ski instructor, is also onboard.

This record was a thrift shop find and looked funky. But, as you'll hear, the sound is quite good – very little cleaning was required. Recorded, as always, from the original "X" label vinyl, crew. Enjoy!

Handyland USA
George Handy
RCA "X" LXA-1004

Handy, p, comp, arr; Ernie Royal, tp; Kai Winding, tbn; Dave Schildkraut, as; Allen Eager, ts; Danny banks, bar; Vinnie Burke, b; Art Mardigan, d.
Webster Hall, New York, NY; August 16, 1954

1. Recoil
2. A Tight Hat
3. Noshin'
4. Sprong
5. Rainbow
6. Pegasus
7. Lean To
8. Blinuet
9. Case-Ace
10. Crazy Lady
11. Zonkin'
12. Footnotes

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