Sunday, October 26, 2008

The blues-iest Rhapsody in Blue

"Portraits in Blue" by Marcus Roberts

This has to be the most raucous, the most bluesy, the most improvisational Rhapsody in Blue ever recorded. And not all of the best improvisation is by Marcus Roberts. Wailing clarinets and wandering trumpets abound. And it is all in a spirit of the original, so much so that I believe jazz-loving Gershwin would have approved.

All of Gershwin's original music is there, but much of it is taken at unusual tempos -- speeded up, slowed down or synchopated -- with many additional minutes of improvisation that actually fit with the original. I'm usually a traditionalist, so I wasn't sure I really wanted to hear a 28-minute Rhapsody in Blue, figuring it probably had a lot of filler. It doesn't. This is music that makes me smile.

Oh yes, there are also two additional pieces, which are very good. The James P. Johnson piece is NOT stride piano, which threw me for a loop. But it IS a sort of answer to Gershwin's Rhapsody. Written just 3 years after the Gershwin original, it is also a multi-themed bluesy 20-minute mini-symphony. And there are the I Got Rhytm variations, which are catchy and inventive. But Rhapsody is what you're buying here, and it may be the best one I've ever heard.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Can a box set be too big?

In a word: Yep.

I don’t say this lightly. There is something about a box set that makes me salivate. I’m Pavlov’s dog for a good box set. I love Springsteen’s “Tracks.” I can listen over and over to all 5 CDs in the Brubeck “For All Time” box set. (Which isn’t really a box set. It’s just five previously released CDs crammed into a box. I like it anyway.) I’m a sucker for box sets of label histories, like the 8-CD “80th Anniversary of RCA Victor.”

And yet…

I remember the early days of For something like $15 a month, you got unlimited downloads. Yes, unlimited. We all knew that couldn't last forever, and it didn't. Anyway, at first I downloaded a CD a week and savored it. Then two a week.

Then I got greedy.

One day, I downloaded all 15 CDs of Monk’s “Complete Riverside Recordings.” It was pure gluttony. I couldn’t possibly digest it all. What’s worse, after a while it all started sounding the same. (And, of course, there were no liner notes, no booklet. I had no idea what I was listening to.)

Then I hit on a solution. Monk recorded a lot of single-LP albums for Riverside. What if I deconstructed the box set into its component parts? That is, what if I discarded the “rare and unreleased” tracks and the outtakes and simply kept the individual tracks together as they originally appeared on Monk’s albums?

Suddenly, I was enjoying my massive download. Suddenly, I had a whole bunch of Monk’s most classic albums, just as he had recorded them -- “Monk’s Music” and “5 By Monk By 5” and “Brilliant Corners,” etc. – instead of an indigestible box. I like that.

But did I lean my lesson? Not really.

Recently, I found a 10-CD Monk box at my local drugstore for exactly $10. How can you not buy a 10-CD set for $10? (How in the world can they even afford to offer a 10-CD set for $10? I don’t get it.) So I bought it. No liner note, no booklet, no idea in the world when the discs were recorded or with whom. And yes, I found myself choking on on Monk all over again.

I’ve learned my lesson this time. Really.

Then again, there’s this really neat 10-CD Duke Ellington set, "The Private Collection," and it only costs $40, and you can never have too much Duke…

Monday, October 20, 2008

Dr. John vs. Professor Longhair

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages! It is time for… the New Orleans piano smack-off! Pianists, you know the rules. Go to your corners and come out drawling. No punches below the belt. No crawfish up the nose. Ready?


Round 1
Dr. John: Education counts, man. I’m a doctor!
Professor Longhair: You ain't no doctor! That's just a nickname. I'm a doctor and a professor. You know the song: "They call me Dr. Professor Longhair, but the ladies all call me a sweet ol’ lovin’ man!"
ROUND: Professor Longhair.

Round 2
DJ: My real name is Mac Rebennack. Top that!
PL: My real name is Roy Byrd. I know. How dull can you get?
ROUND: Dr. John

Round 3
DJ: My best album is “Dr. John’s Gumbo” from 1972. It includes the best version of the best New Orleans song ever! “Iko Iko” is a classic, man! Rolling Stone ranked my album No. 402 in the top 500 albums of all time. My grandma told your grandma I’m gonna set your flag on fire!
PL: My best album is “Rock ‘n Roll Gumbo” from my comeback period in 1977. It includes the instrumental classic “Doin’ It.” Lots of great honky-tonk, boogie-woogie piano on that one. Tell me how long has that train been gone?
ROUND: Dr. John

Round 4
DJ: I growl, man. My voice sounds like it’s been kicked around a dirt road a few times, then soaked in jambalaya.
PL: I sounded like Elvis before there was an Elvis, man! Deep, dark, honey-soaked voice.
ROUND: Dr. John

Round 5
DJ: You wanna know hard luck? I got exiled to LA! says: “Skirting trouble with the law and drugs, he left the increasingly unwelcome environs of New Orleans in the mid-'60s for Los Angeles, where he found session work with the help of fellow New Orleans expatriate Harold Battiste.”
PL: Oh man, that ain’t hard luck. says: “Justly worshipped a decade and a half after his death as a founding father of New Orleans R&B, Roy ‘Professor Longhair’ Byrd was nevertheless so down-and-out at one point in his long career that he was reduced to sweeping the floors in a record shop that once could have moved his platters by the boxful.”
ROUND: Professor Longhair

Round 6
DJ: I recorded “Stack-a-Lee.” It sounds jaunty and happy and bluesy, with horns, man, horns!
PL: I recorded “Stagger Lee,” too, but I spelled it right! It also sounds jaunty and happy and rocking, with a Chuck Berry-style guitar solo!
ROUND: Professor Longhair

Round 7
DJ: I’m the read deal. I was born in Louisiana, became popular in late 1960s and early 70s as the psychedelic “Night Tripper.” But later I sold out and did an album of Duke Ellington, and an album of standards with strings and a Popeye’s chicken ad jingle! But my best single, “Right Place Wrong Time” was No 9 in the country in 1973. No. 9!
PL: Hey, I was born in Louisiana, too, but I was popular long before you, in the 1950s, pretty much only with black audiences. Then I had a long fell from grace, but I rebounded in the 70s, pretty much with white audiences who recognized me as the godfather of New Orleans R&B. I’m the authentic sound of bluesy New Orleans!
ROUND: Professor Longhair

Well, there you have it, fight fans. It’s Professor Longhair by a decision. But honestly, you couldn’t go wrong with either of these fine gentlemen tickling the 88s. Get at least one CD of each. Now.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Modified Monk

There are worse ways to discover Thelonious Monk.

It was 1984. I was four years out of college. I was a struggling newspaper writer, freshly married. I had discovered jazz a few years earlier, but was still fixated on a few faves – Brubeck, Corea, Mingus, even Fats Waller. Monk? Heard of the guy, but never listened to his music.

And what kind of name is that, anyway?

Then a friend gave me a two-record set called “That’s the Way I Feel Now,” a tribute to Thelonious Monk by a bunch of disparate musicians – some jazz, some rock, some who sounded like they came from Mars, or maybe CBGBs.

You need to hear this record. Really.

There are 23 cuts, all Monk tunes, but no two of them sound remotely the same. And yet every one remains true to Monk and his music.

NRBQ and Peter Frampton rock out on “Little Rootie Tootie” and “Work,” respectively. Dr. John gets all New Orleansy on a solo piano version of “Blue Monk.” Joe Jackson plays piano with an orchestra on a wistful “Round Midnight.” Todd Rundgren turns in a happy, playful, fun “Four In One.” Bobby McFerrin tries an equally fun duet with voice-and-vibes on “Friday the 13th.”

And then there are the oddities. In their dopey way, I like them, too. John Zorn turns in, by far, the strangest version of a Monk song you’ll ever hear. It’s “Shuffle Boil” with squeaks and beeps and duck calls. I’m sure there’s a Monk tune in there somewhere. I think. Anyway, it’s clever and original – just like Monk. He’d like it.

The original LP featured sleeves with references to all the original Monk works. I was intrigued. If the reworkings were this odd, what could the originals sound like? I bought one. Then another. And another. They lived up to expectations. I became Monk crazed.

The shame is this: The record is out of print. There is an old one-disc CD version, which costs way too much used, which may be OK because the producers cut out seven tracks to fit it on the one disc. That means I’m left with my cassette tape, and I’m not too sure how long that will hold out. (I gave away the original LP. Wish I hadn’t.)

If you can find it, get it. Tape it, copy it. This is the one that turned me on to my all-time favorite jazz pianist. After all these years, it still sounds fresh.

Suggested CD: "That's The Way I Feel Now" by Various Artists

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In praise of fun

In the beginning, jazz was fun.

Check it out. Go back. Go way back.

Louis Armstrong was fun. Duke Ellington was fun. Fats Waller was fun.

I feel silly pointing this out, but I think some jazz artists forgot about this fun thing. They’re so caught up in being wonderful and precise and – God help us – fast. Nothing wrong with fast. Fast can be fun. But it isn’t always.

Wynton Marsalis is fast. He’s very fast. He’s a wonderful musician. He’s a great proselytizer for jazz. He is the face of jazz at a time when it desperately needs a face. But he ain’t fun. He’s so damn serious, and all the time!

Miles Davis was like that, too. He was moody and his music sounds moody. In a good way. Art doesn’t always have to be fun, but it’s nice when it is.

Now, Dizzy Gillespie was fun. He could throw a party just standing in a room alone with a trumpet, and that would be fun. You sensed it on all his records, and it was truer than ever in concert.

Fats Waller was maybe the funnest jazz musician of all. If anyone had more fun on the 88s, I haven’t heard it. And I don’t care if his records are older than Fred Flintstone. He was part-clown, yes, because he was having fun. He had fun without singing a word. Solo Fats is maybe the most fun you can have on a piano.

Suggested CD: “If You Got To Ask, You Ain’t Got It!” by Fats Waller

Tracks: “African Ripples” and “Viper’s Drag”