Big Screen, Great Jazz – movie review by Abe Beeson

Since the success of biographical musician films like Ray (Ray Charles) and Walk the Line (Johnny Cash), I’ve been longing to see on film the fascinating lives of jazz musicians like Chet Baker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and others, only to be disappointed. So, (as the song goes) until the real thing comes along, I’m going to be watching and re-watching some of the jazz films that have already been made. I hope to continue this online series of reviews, hoping to spark the interest of, at least, movie goers to the wealth of fascinating jazz lives that have made great films.

kansascity

Kansas City (dir. by Robert Altman, 1996)

Robert Altman’s Kansas City, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as a young woman who kidnaps the wife (Miranda Richardson) of a Kansas City political bigwig with the hopes of getting help to free her small-time hood husband (Dermot Mulroney) from the clutches of K.C.’s biggest crook, Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). The treat for jazz fans comes in the soundtrack, recorded “live at the Hey Hey Club” with some of today’s brightest stars playing the loose, swinging jazz of the 30’s.

This was a time, during the Great Depression, when Kansas City was the center of the jazz world. As the hub for dozens of Territory Bands who’d travel through the hinterlands playing the hits of the day, the greatest musicians of the swing era spent a good deal of time in Kansas City. Charlie Parker himself grew up in Kansas City around this time and a young actor plays a bit part as a young “Yardbird” hanging out at the club and silently marveling at his heroes, alto sax slung around his neck.

But it’s the jazz pros providing the soundtrack that got my attention in the first place. Though they weren’t given any lines, the professional musicians at the Hey Hey Club stole every scene they had. There’s David “Fathead” Newman taking a rare turn on alto sax, Geri Allen showing her boogie woogie piano chops, joyous trumpet work from Nicholas Payton & Olu Dara, and Kevin Mahogany sings a bit of blues from behind the bar (as a female patron lounges beside the pints and highballs). Early in their careers, the cool guitar work featured both Mark Whitfield and Russell Malone, and I spotted Lewis Nash and bass giants Ron Carter and Christian McBride almost fading into the background at the back of the bandstand.

A few of the musicians played the parts of real-life legends, though again without any lines. A very young James Carter nails his short solos in the role of the great tenor Ben Webster, and the musical highlight is the tenor sax battle between Joshua Redman (as Lester Young) and Craig Handy (as Coleman Hawkins). As their fellow musicians do, they play energetically in the swing style of the day, but they don’t strictly imitate the giants they portray. Director Altman says he told the band to feel the looseness and energy of this exciting time when the great soloists began to break out of the collaborative sound of the big bands.

Sadly, excepting the two minutes of tenor battle, the music segments are rather short. As a jazz nerd, I still found it fascinating to see the big names of today playing in the context of the legends that came before them.

The film itself is called by Altman one of his personal favorites, and the DVD commentary track features some interesting insights into the director’s childhood in 1930’s Kansas City. However, I found the story too thin to support the hard work of a talented cast. Harry Belafonte’s Seldom Seen monologues are an interesting insight into race relations of the time, but the message gets through in half the time taken. The sets are impressive, Altman spent much of the budget refurbishing a section of his beloved Kansas City train station, the acting is sharp, particularly the drug-addled politician’s wife played by Miranda Richardson, but my heart belonged to the live jazz scenes.

Altman famously recorded the band live while they filmed and the sound track is well worth picking up, with much more detailed info on the technical difficulties of recording the music while making the film. I’ll give this movie 3 stars out of 5, an extra star if you’re a big fan of the director, but I prefer his films The Player and Gosford Park. Jazz geeks like me will thrill to the music and a look at today’s big jazz stars just cutting their teeth.

Click Here to listen to Yeah Man! from the Kansas City original motion picture soundtrack.

UPDATE: listener Kandie (in comments) also recommends Altman’s “Jazz ’34” Rememberances of Kansas City Swing from Rhapsody Films (including complete versions of the jazz snippets in the film) and 3 related CDs: Kansas City: Orig. Motion Picture Soundtrack (noted in the above review), Kansas City Band: More Music from Robert Altman’s Kansas City, and The Real Kansas City of the 20’s 30’s and 40’s. thanks, Kandie!!

And the Grammy goes to…Disappointment

Does anyone remember how fulfilling the Grammy Awards were last year for jazz fans? Of course we never get to see the jazz awards given away on television, but the recordings and artists who won the awards last year was certainly something to get excited about. The late great tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker takes home two Grammy awards posthumously, one for an album that could be the best jazz release of the last 25 years. Herbie Hancock takes home an award in the “Contemporary Jazz Album” category, legitimizing the category and keeping the trophy out of the hands of smooth jazz artists. Trumpeter Terrance Blanchard took home an award in the big band category for his emotional Requiem for Katrina release, and Patti Austin and Paquito D’ Rivera each receive Grammys for excellent work in the vocal and Latin jazz fields.

And then when the televised portion of the program arrived, a time dedicated almost solely to rappers, rock stars, and country singers, two fantastic things happened. Pianist Eldar took the stage and wowed the audience. And as the ceremonies came to a close, Herbie Hancock stunned the music world by taking top Grammy honors, while artists like Kanye West had to keep their respective seats.

Following the Grammy Awards, the sales of Herbie’s album shot up over 800 percent. Jazz, to at least some degree, had been put back on the mainstream map.

Then last night, the nominations for the awards given for work over the last year were released. While no one might expect a year for jazz like 2007 again for a long time, the nominations this time around, with a few exceptions, left a lot to be desired.

The Yellowjackets (a band who has tried to label themselves as everything but a smooth jazz band, even with the likes of Robben Ford and Bob Mintzer passing through, are simply that, a smooth jazz band), arrive back on the nomination board for the Contemporary Album award. In the vocal category, Karrin Allyson, Stacey Kent and Cassandra Wilson all get nods, but for albums that all might sound a little too similar to recordings they have released in previous years.

Some very respectable nominations go to Terrance Blanchard in the Instrumental Solo division, a nomination each to Brad Mehldau and Pat Metheny in the Instrumental Album category, and Joe Lovano for his recording with the WDR Big Band and Rudfunk Orchestra in the Big Band division. These are all deserving recordings that should take home awards, with a coin toss deciding the winner between Metheny and Mehldau.

The best album of the year happens to be missing from the list, that being Roy Hargrove’s live release Earfood. Hargrove is a musician who seems to keep getting better and better when it seems not possible, and with respect for the other nominees, Earfood dwarfs any jazz album released in the last 12 months.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that any of the nominated recordings aren’t good, because they most certainly are. I suppose I feel that maybe its similar to receiving a brand new car for Christmas in 2007, and then in 2008 receiving a gift of a nice pair of pants. While not a bad gift at all, it just doesn’t compare to how spoiled we were last year.

This poses the question: Will we ever be as spoiled as we were last year? Will the public ever have the same buzz about jazz as they did after watching the Grammy Awards last year? I suppose that is up to the musicians and the nominating committee, so we shall see.

On an interesting note, Miles Davis was nominated for a Grammy this year…sort of…for Best Album Notes. Francis Davis, the writer of the liner notes for the 50th Anniversary release of Kind of Blue appears to be the likely candidate in the Album Notes category.

Jaco and His Best Birthday

jaco-pastoriusDecember 1st marked the 57th anniversary of the birth of the greatest electric bass player ever, Jaco Pastorius. It also marks the 27th anniversary of Jaco’s live recording of his album The Birthday Concert.

This concert remains my all time favorite live concert recording. Not only for the amazing band that Jaco put together (including Michael Brecker, Bob Mintzer, Don Alias, and Peter Erskine), or for the amazing performance that the band and Jaco put forth. But also because it was a time where a musician like Jaco Pastorius, someone troubled by alcohol abuse, and seeming only held back by that, could find the opportunity to surround himself with friends and family, and simply celebrate with music. Jaco was in amazing form, as were the musicians around him, and they were all enjoying themselves in celebration. Losing Jaco a short while later was a tragedy to the music world, and this concert represents one point in time where he could be surrounded by the people important to him and celebrate his milestone.

Below is the opening track to the concert, featuring the before mentioned musicians, as well as Melton Mustafa on the trumpet. This album is a must for anyone wanting to hear Jaco, quite possibly at his best. Enjoy!

Click here to listen to Jaco Pastorius and the band play Soul Intro/The Chicken from The Birthday Concert.

Emerging Artists: Ryan Keberle

keberleGroove Notes will periodically take a look at some “up and coming” jazz musicians who are making a splash on the scene in a series called Emerging Artists.

I will begin this series looking at a young trombonist who is making a significant showing on the New York jazz scene. Since moving there eight years ago, Ryan Keberle has proven he is the real deal, not only as a trombonist, but also as a composer and educator.

I was able to meet Ryan when we both attended school at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. While Whitworth is regularly noted as one of the best college jazz programs in the country, Ryan possessed the talent that would soon lead him to the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he would study with master trombonist Steve Turre.

It was Turre, or his absence, that brought Keberle to my attention once again. I will call myself the occasional Saturday Night Live viewer, and when I do manage to see the show, I tend to pay attention to the house band led by saxophonist Lenny Pickett (former bandleader of Tower of Power). I typically notice Steve Turre holding the trombone, easily spotted with his long black beard and sturdy frame. During my most recent viewing of the program, it was clearly not Turre on trombone. The young musician holding the trombone had a much slimmer build, no beard, and a head of hair far less tame than that of Turre. Further examination revealed the musician as Ryan Keberle, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Upon researching what Keberle has done since his arrival in New York, being surprised to see him playing with one of the top television bands might be as unfair as defining him as “emerging”. He has, in fact, emerged, and while his name might not be household among jazz trombone fans, it is in my opinion simply a matter of time.

Keberle is doing what all young musicians need to do: work. In fact he is working a lot, performing as a member of roughly 15 New York based ensembles, including the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Additionally his website notes performances or recordings with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Frank Wess, Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, Charles McPherson, the late Percy Heath, Teo Macero, Joe Lovano, Eric Reed, Ivan Lins, Jon Hendricks, Madeline Peyroux, and Alicia Keys among others, and is the regular trombonist for the broadway musical, “In the Heights”.

Keberle released his debut album, The Ryan Keberle Double Quartet, in April of 2007. The album was a very unique concept, virtually molding two quartets (quartet one consisting of trombone, piano, bass, and drums, and a second brass quartet of trumpet, french horn, trombone, and tuba) into one fantastic sounding group. Great reviews followed, including reviews from the New York Times and Inside Connection.

Keberle recently returned home to Spokane to perform once again with the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble I, this time however, as the featured guest artist. Previous featured guests have included the likes of Gene Harris, Randy Brecker, Eric Reed, and Nicholas Payton, just to name a few.

Additionally, Ryan was selected as one of ten finalists for the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trombone Competition. He also plays a role in jazz education, as he began his tenure as a visiting professor in 2004 at City University’s Hunter College.

Things look bright for Ryan Keberle, and the future only looks bigger and brighter for a musician who’s talents and capabilities continue to grow.

Watch Ryan Keberle solo with Gary Morgan’s PanAmericana in Central Park, August 2006:

Building a Dream Big Band Part VI: The Bandleader – A Stunning Conclusion

Well it all comes down to this. The musicians are in place. All that they wait for now is some direction.

If you haven’t read any of the previous “Dream Big Band” blogs, let me fill you in. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve pieced together my own personal dream big band, section by section. Five trumpets, four trombones, five saxes, guitar, bass, piano, drums, male vocalist, and female vocalist. The only criteria for musicians to make this band is that I personally would want to see these people up on stage, all together, at one time. Alive or dead, it doesn’t matter.

LET ME REPEAT: this is not a “Top 10” or “Best Ever” list. It is simply who I would get the most joy out of seeing on stage at the same time. While I have received lots of positive comments on the band, I have also heard from others who disagree with some of my selections. I completely encourage everyone to share who they might like to see in their own dream big band…in fact I would enjoy it. The wonderful thing about jazz is that there has been so many great musicians that there is no way that one persons dream band would look the same as another persons band. If one legend of jazz is not selected, it should not be considered a slap in a face to the legacy of that musician. Just a personal preference. That is exactly what makes this project fun and interesting, as opposed to trying to make it an exact science. And I hope it has encouraged you to think about your dream big band, and who might participate in it. And again, thanks so much for your feedback.

Here is how the band was sectioned together:

Trumpets:

Lead: Arturo Sandoval

2nd Chair: Wynton Marsalis

Third Chair: Freddie Hubbard

Fourth Chair: Miles Davis

Fifth Chair: Thad Jones

Trombones (selected by former KPLU host Troy Oppie):

Lead: Bob Burgess

Second Chair: Frank Rosilino

Third Chair: Al Grey

Bass Trombone: Bill Hughes

Saxes:

First Alto: Charlie Parker

Second Alto: Cannonball Adderley

First Tenor: Michael Brecker

Second Tenor: John Coltrane

Baritone Saxophone: Cecil Payne

The Rhythm Section:

Guitar: Charlie Christian

Piano: Herbie Hancock

Bass: Jaco Pastorius

Drums: Jack DeJohnette

Vocalists:

Female Vocalist: Carmen McRae

Male Vocalist: Lou Rawls

And now, the bandleader.

I probably pick, and then scratched of the list a dozen or so leaders, and more or less for all the same reason. If they were the band leader, as legendary as they might be, would the band sound original, or would it sound just like the band of that leader? For example, if I picked Count Basie, would it just be the Basie Band with a bunch of charts by Nestico and Hefti? Same thing if I picked Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman. If I pick Glenn Miller, is this all-star band limited to playing charts from the late 30’s to early 40’s like Tuxedo Junction or In the Mood? Buddy Rich might be a reasonable option, but there is always the chance that he would fire the entire band on the tour bus before it showed up to the show (because, well, it has happened before).

One of the things that made the previously mentioned band leaders great is the fact that their band had its own unique, identifiable style. With the versatility of the band I constructed, I wanted someone different, someone who wasn’t necessarily defined by an era, or a band that was defined by a certain sound. I also wanted someone no one else would think to pick. And so, my band leader is:

Band Leader: Doc Severinsen

doc-severinsenDid anyone see that one coming? Sure, laugh, but how much fun would that be? And don’t think that Doc doesn’t have his credentials in order. Severinsen was likely the best know band leader and trumpet player in America for 25 years, heading up the band for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, widely considered one of the best big band jobs ever. He’s recorded nearly every type of music, making him extremely versatile.

Doc’s experience with big bands is far from limited to television. Dating back to 1945, Doc was a featured musician with bands headed up by Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, and Noro Morales, while also backing the likes of Dinah Washington and Anita O’ Day.

His album sales as a big band leader and as a small group leader have all proven well, including a Grammy win in the big band category. Bands he directed contained members with a vast background of big band experience, including Conte Candoli (Woody Herman, Stan Kenton), Snooky Young (Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis), Ed Shaughnessy (Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman), Ernie Watts (Buddy Rich, Oliver Nelson), Bill Perkins (Woody Herman, Stan Kenton), and Ross Tompkins (Benny Goodman).

And finally, Doc is a whole lot of fun. A flashy, bright (be it a tad tacky) wardrobe and sense of humor would make him a great leader for this or any band. Add the fact that he is a true trumpet virtuoso, it would be fun to see him pick up the horn and play a solo too. I’ll just mention that he also recorded with Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Gene Krupa, Chris Connor, Tito Puente, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ruth Brown, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Stan Getz, Milt Jackson, Mundell Lowe, Billy Taylor, and Tony Bennett.

My band leader needs to have the ability to direct a top notch band with creative arrangements, entertain the audience between songs, and wear a flashy outfit. Doc has that all covered, and then some.

So that is the band. Check out videos from Doc Severinsen below, and look see a layout of the entire band. And dont forget to let me know who you would like to see in your band!

Watch Doc Severinsen conduct and play Stardust in this video:

Watch Doc and the gang team up with Buddy Rich for We’ll Git It:

Watch a fun little sampler of Doc performances, concluding with Doc playing for Ronald Reagan:

And finally, Doc leading a band, way back in 1965, playing Blues in the Night: