Waxing & musings. Can jazz survive in a culture that worships fakes? Jazz came of age in the 1940s, when small groups thrived and individual artists made a name for themselves impressing audiences on club stages with their dexterity and creative brilliance. Authenticity and grace mattered. So did talent and the ability to charm by expressing feelings. [Illustration by R. Crumb]
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, artists had little choice. Before the manipulative electronic and digital ages, a jazz artist earned a living fully exposed. You had to be honest as an artist and truly special to achieve acclaim. Phonies were weeded out quickly in jam sessions, competitive recording studios and other venues where ability couldn't be cloaked, airbrushed or tweaked. America valued integrity then, and shirkers, impostors and corner-cutters were frowned upon. Tough parents and a pronounced fear of shame saw to that.
Today, we live in a charlatan age. High-profile personalities aren't expected to write their own books. Debt-ridden socialites proudly sneak into the White House. Pro-family Senators cheat on their wives. Holier-than-thou Congressmen accept illegal gifts. Families get their kids to participate in publicity stunts. And no one ever feels bad when caught. Why should they? Faux is the new real, and fame and fortunes are bestowed on the brazen. It's somewhat fitting that Old Navy's current TV ad tagline is "Never give up your dream of being fake."
The question is this: In a culture obsessed with being fooled, can jazz have much meaning? It's a tough question to answer. Jazz is first and foremost about authenticity. When jazz musicians record or perform, they don't stage a sex fantasy or pretend to be droids, convicts or pimps. They just perform honest music that requires curious, sensitive listeners. I'm not sure how much value this kind of music can ever have in a society that thrives on being duped.
Johnny Alf (1929-2010), a Brazilian pianist and singer whose slightly out of tune vocals were eclipsed by his daring naturalism, high-risk harmonies and carefree style, died March 4th in Brazil. He was 80.
Long considered the earliest and most significant influence on the composers and musicians developing the bossa nova in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, Alf was a deep-voiced club balladeer who accompanied himself on piano. His voice was among the most jazz-toasted of Rio's samba poets, embracing the so-what romanticism of Chet Baker and pleading optimism of singers like Jackie Paris. But most of all, Alf exuded a soft beach sound, pushing notes passionately and dropping off to create space. The surf-like style gave listeners a chance to absorb his words and feather-floating harmonies.
If there's an instrument that most closely sounds like Alf's voice it would have to be the trombone. Even on uptempo tunes, you can almost visualize the instrument's slide being extended or brought up tight and tickled back and forth to produce vibrato. For a variety of reasons, Alf wasn't "imported" to the U.S. by American record companies, the way the more European-looking Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto were in the early 1960s.
Fortunately, Alf's recordings live on with cult status. Three of my favorites for those new to this singer: Rapaz de Bem (1961), Diagonal (1964) and Eu e a Brisa (1965). Do yourself a favor and download the latter one at iTunes or here. And don't blame me if you use up this week's allowance hauling in the others.
LPs and warpage. Photographer and Chiaroscuro Records founder- producer Hank O'Neal sent along an email on the likely causes of defects in vinyl albums of the 1970s [Photo of Hank O'Neal by Ian Clifford]:
"It is a bit of a stretch for readers to say that no one bothered to listen to test pressings. My guess is that any company that didn't listen to its jazz test pressings was the kind of schlock joint that didn't listen to test pressings of any genre of music. Equal opportunity discrimination.
"Regarding warpage. I can't speak to the early days of the LP, when vinyl discs tended to be a bit thicker. But in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the surface certainly grew thinner, finally winding up like tissue paper.
"Why did LPs become warped? One of the culprits was shrink-wrapping, which pulled on album jackets in opposite directions. In other cases the manufacturing process was so hurried that LPs weren't allowed to cool properly. Vinyl "biscuits" [pictured] were fed into machines, discs were stuffed into sleeves, sleeves were shoved into albums jackets, and then jackets were fed through a shrink-wrap machine. If that machine was slightly out of whack or covers weren't fed into the machine properly or discs weren't given a chance to fully form, the vinyl could wind up warped. And as record-buyers know, it was virtually impossible to unwarp a disc.
"There were many other reasons for defects, mostly related to heat. That is why I always kept a dime on my turntable to put on the tonearm. That dime is still there."
From reader Joel Lewis:
"There was also the sad custom of taking disks and melting them, cover, inner sleeve and all to make recycled vinyl. This came at a time when folks were buying more expensive stereo systems. Hence the craze for direct-to-disk recordings. It's ironic that today so much of our listening is done through cheapo earbuds playing mp3s."
William P. Gottlieb. Reader Kurt Kolstad alerted me to a fabulous site featuring the iconic images of jazz photographer William P. Gottlieb. Go here.
CD discoveries of the week. If you dig organ-guitar-drums trios, Charlie Apicella & Iron City's new release Sparks lights a groovy fuse. The band sets a rich soulful pace from the start and works hard to keep the sound fresh throughout. This is a warm, tight trio, which is saying something considering that many groups of this configuration fall down on the job. Ideas here are expressed fluidly, and each of the musicians rises to the challenge of the punchy material, especially guitarist Apicella. Dig those song choices! The riffy Sookie, Sookie is here. So is Lou Donaldson's Caracas and Grant Green's eely Blues in Maude's Flat. And believe it or not, Michael Jackson's Billie Jean is spot on. Apicella's originals are also funky and well thought out. You'll find Sparks at iTunes or here.
Tobias Gebb & Unit 7's Free at Last is a winner. Rather than turn out a me-too album of modern modal wanderings, drummer Gebb and this medium-sized ensemble deliver well- seasoned and perfectly structured jazz. Gebb's five originals are melodic and infused with the hip sound of 1970s horns. His reed writing is efficient and clever, especially on the standard You Don't Know What Love Is. And wait until you hear what the group does with Lennon-McCartney's Tomorrow Never Knows. Nice job. You'll find the album at iTunes and here.
Oddball album cover of the week. George Williams was an interesting first-rate arranger and bandleader, and this 1953 album for Brunswick was no exception. Musicians knew him as The Fox, which is why our cover features a sly, bushy maestro. Though the album's material veers toward novelty at times (it's at iTunes), Williams pulled in quite a cast: Chris Griffin, Ernie Royal, John Bello, Taft Jordan and Jonah Jones (trumpets); Kai Winding, Urbie Green and Chuck Evans (trombones); Billy Pritchard (bass trombone); Joe Park (tuba); Lenny Hambro, Eddie Scalzi (alto saxes); Al Klink and Sam "The Man" Taylor (tenor saxes); Ernie Caceres (baritone sax); Stuart McKay (bass sax); Buddy Savarese (piano); George Barnes (guitar); Eddie Safranski (bass) and Harry Jaeger (drums).