Sonny Rollins. My liner notes for Sonny Rollins' newly remastered Way Out West (Concord) just arrived. I can't even begin to tell you how excited I am. It was a joy to pay tribute to Sonny and an honor to write about an album I've loved for years. Over my 25-year career, I've seen my byline in newspapers and magazines. I've appeared on The Today Show, CNN and other national TV news shows. But as a jazz fan, nothing prepares you for seeing your name next to the names of legends you admire most.
Way Out West is a brilliant album for all of the reasons I mention in my liner notes. But in 1957, it also was a cultural statement. On the album, the East's leading saxophone star met two of the West's busiest studio musicians. This summit came at a time when a faux coastal rivalry was being fanned by record companies and magazine editors. But Sonny's motive back then wasn't to one-up Shelly Manne and Ray Brown. He simply dug cowboy flicks and The Lone Ranger as a kid and saw an opportunity to pay tribute to the Western and live out an all-American fantasy. Manne and Brown happily were along for the ride.
Here's the opening paragraph from my liner notes:
"Sonny Rollins' early role models were cowboys of the big screen. Stars of the 1930s Westerns like Buck Jones, Charles Starrett and Ken Maynard taught Sonny about fairness, justice and self-sufficiency. "Ken Maynard seemed to have been a real guy who was honest but hard-hitting," Sonny told me during a recent conversation. "He was a guy you couldn't fool around with more than once. Sonny paused—and then roared with laughter."
For the rest, you'll have to buy the CD or download the album at iTunes (you get the liner notes with downloads of new releases there). I don't make a dime off of sales, just the satisfaction of knowing that great music is newly appreciated and a lovable side of Sonny's personality has been detailed. Hats off to the reissue's producer Nick Phillips. The album sounds great.
John Bunch (1921-2010), who became jazz giant later in life than most musicians of his generation but fast became one of the most graceful time-keepers in both big-band and small-group settings, died March 30th in New York of melanoma. He was 88.
John's success secret was simplicity and humility. What John lacked in schooled technique he more than made up for in impeccable swing and tasteful harmony. Hugely influenced by the spare perfection of Count Basie and Teddy Wilson, John was gentle and modest, leaning toward self-deprecating.
But when seated at the keyboard, he was firmly in control, weaving elegantly through a range of styles, including block chords, without ever playing heavy. If you had the pleasure of sitting inches from John's hands while he played, you had the sense that the keyboard was made of marshmallow, as his hands seemed to bounce lightly off the notes.
John told me between sets at Small's last year that he liked to play the piano like a guitarist, strumming the notes lightly rather than bullying them. When I saw John last, he shook off the arthritis in his right hand and whisked through standards, coaxing out their lyrical beauty with delicate voicings and a relentless left hand. His playing was so patient and seductive that in recent years he attracted a regular band of female jazz listeners.
Perhaps the high point for me the last night I saw John was Henry Mancini's Mr. Lucky, a song that in some ways personified his professional career. Yet when I urged him afterward to record a Mancini tribute album, he resisted. "I'm not sure how much more of Henry's work has the kind of spring I need to fit my style."Tomorrow, I will feature an interview I conducted with John early last year.
Herb Ellis (1921-2010), a guitarist and composer whose years of rhythm-keeping with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown probably qualify him as a drummer as well, died March 28th in Los Angeles of Alzheimer's disease. He was 88.
Among Ellis' best leadership recordings are Ellis in Wonderland (1955) and Softly, But With Feeling (1961), on which he plays Detour Ahead, a song that he, Lou Carter and Johnny Frigo are credited with co-writing.
Doug Ramsey earlier in the week wrote a superb tribute of Ellis here.
Terry Teachout. This has nothing to do with jazz but everything to do with smarts. Knowing Terry as well as I do, he is an incredibly fast, voracious reader. Last week Terry, the arts essayist and Wall Street Journal theater critic, posted at his blog the 10 books that most influenced his view of the world. To see his list, go here.
DVD discovery of the week. Naxos of America continues to issue spectacular DVDs in its Masters of American Music Series. Two of the latest four are particularly noteworthy: Count Basie: Swingin' the Blues and Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One. I saw the Sarah Vaughan documentary on PBS some years ago, and it was a joy to see it again here in crisp digital form. If you think Sarah is some singer, wait until you see her in action through the years on this DVD.
The Count Basie DVD is new to me, and you're reminded how important and critical an artist he was just moments into this documentary. Every major big band arranger and artist in the post-war period cites Basie as a central influence. When asked at one point how he'd like to be remembered, Basie said, "As a nice guy." Hear, hear.
The other two DVDs in this series that were issued a few days ago are The World According to John Coltrane and Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music.
CD discoveries of the week. Trumpeter Claudio Roditi has released a tasty new bossa nova CD called Simpatico featuring all original compositions. The CD kicks off with the commanding Spring Samba and changes moods on each track. Dig Roditi's playing against the string writing on Slow Fire. Or his playful bossa nova How Intensitive. And Alberto and Daisy is pure sunshine. Roditi remains one of today's unsung trumpeters and practitioners of sensual samba jazz. See what I mean by sampling Simpatico at iTunes or here.
Dig Bill Evans and introspective jazz piano? Italian pianist Luciano Troja's At Home with Zindars is for you. Luciano self-produced this CD, which comes with a 40-page booklet on the 16 tracks and composer Earl Zindars, who died in 2005. Zindars wrote several important jazz works that were adopted by Evans, including Mother of Earl and How My Heart Sings. Luciano's solo work is touching and deeply moving, especially as you listen and read about his passion for Zindars. While you likely know the two songs mentioned above, you might not be familiar with Zindars' other works, many of which are interpreted here. You'll find At Home With Zindars and samples here.
Biophilia by the Vinson Valega Group has a smart, late hardbop feel. Drummer Valega keeps things moving with change-up patterns and six original compositions. While the sextet pulls toward free and modal jazz at times, it's merely a ruse. Within a few measures, songs return to structure and pointed harmonies. A Moment of Silence is a good example of this split personality. Each tune shimmers with a different energy, and pianist Matthew Fries is a standout. Go sample November Spring. You'll find Biophilia at iTunes or here.
Oddball album cover of the week. Poor Charlie Barnet. The guy who made Cherokee a smash hit with Billy May's arrangement in 1939 is reduced to a carpet-sitter on some beach near Los Angeles. The album was recorded at the La Paz Hotel in Palm Springs, CA, in 1959. I have no idea how this Capitol release sounds or why it was released. But here it is.