For the December 2018 issue of JazzTimes, I had the enjoyable task of creating a “Before & After” playlist for the multi-talented singer/guitarist/songwriter Raul Midón. Raul and I listened together in a Manhattan recording studio, and he gave me his impressions of the music before and after I identified artists and albums (he guessed the majority of artists pretty quickly). The article at JazzTimes.com includes a Spotify playlist, so you can listen along with us as you read his comments. Raul just earned his second Grammy nomination for his latest album, If You Really Want, a soulful collaboration with arranger/composer Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orkest, the Dutch jazz orchestra.
At 11 o’clock till “stupid late” every Tuesday night, a little dive bar on the Lower East Side called Mona’s becomes ground zero for New York City’s Hot Jazz revival. It’s all thanks to a marvelous 34-year-old clarinet player from Newton, Mass. named Dennis Lichtman, who started the Tuesday jam back in 2007. Why does he choose to play vintage jazz from the 20s and 30s? See the article from the December 2018 DownBeat here or read the unedited version below.
A decade before he became one of the instigators of New York City’s traditionaljazz revival, Dennis Lichtman was studying music business and clarinet at theHartt School of Music in Hartford and thinking about the future.
“They didn’t teach me to go play at a little dive bar on the Lower East Side that isn’t really a music venue, and to make no money for the first couple of years, and to just have fun, and maybe a scene will coalesce around it that you’ll become known for 10 years later,” he said recently over coffee in his Long Island City, Queens apartment. “But that’s what happened.”
The little dive bar is called Mona’s, where, since June 2007, Lichtman has been packing them in, leading “Mona’s Hot 4” every Tuesday night between 11 p.m. and “stupid late,” as his website says. The “hot jazz” scene at Mona’s attracts many of the city’s top musicians, who often drop by after their regular gigs. In recent months they have included stars like Cecile McLorin Salvant, Anat Cohen, Chris Thile and Jon Batiste. He has made two live albums there. The most recent of them, 2012’s Tuesdays at Mona’s (www.dennislichtman.com), includes 19 guest musicians and a DVD including a documentary film.
Meanwhile, Lichtman, now 38, has become one of the busiest multi-instrumentalists in town. In addition to his clarinet acumen, he plays fiddle and mandolin in a variety of outfits including The Brain Cloud, a Western Swing band featuring singer Tamar Korn, with whom he has made three albums, and a new old-timey quintet called the Lovestruck Balladeers. In the fall he will tour China (with banjoist Cynthia Sayer) and Israel with his own quintet.
He is also a long-time member (on clarinet) of trumpeter/composer Brian Carpenter’s 11-piece “Ghost Train Orchestra,” which plays “chamber jazz” from the 1930s with crisp, period arrangements but forward-looking soloists. “I’ve been playing with Dennis for 10 years,” Carpenter said. “He has one of the most stunningly beautiful clarinet sounds in jazz today. And then you find out how old he is and how many other instruments he plays – it’s unbelievable.”
Lichtman’s latest album, Just Cross the River, pays tribute to the “unglamorous” borough of Queens, which, because of its affordability and convenience to Manhattan, was home to more giants of jazz than just about any other place in the country, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Bix Beiderbecke, Fats Waller and Billie Holiday. In August 2018, Lichtman debuted the album with two sold-out shows at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz At Lincoln Center. “Madonna came to the first show!” he said, still marveling at the memory.
Unlike most jazz musicians, who want to sound as contemporary as humanly possible, Lichtman is an articulate advocate for earlier styles. Asked why he chooses to play this music, his response is immediate: “I love it. That’s the short answer. The longer answer is that there’s something communal about music from the earlier era of jazz… For me it’s the jazz version of three chords and the truth… the perfect combination of broad appeal and deep sophistication. You can get as nerdy and intricate as you want. But if the rhythm section is thumping, any shmo can walk in off the street and be moved by it.”
And there are plenty of gigs, he said. “In some ways, it might be easier than it is for modern jazz players. Lots of restaurants in New York are interested in having trad jazz. It’s lively and fun, acoustic, not too loud. The standard pay may even be a little higher than for other types of jazz.”
Other musicians occasionally ask him, “with a degree of condescension, ‘Why would you play that stuff that’s 80 years old,’” he said. “When they’re playing something that sounds like Coltrane in 1965. It’s all vintage. It’s America; it’s history, but it’s also part of an ongoing evolution. Pick your starting point and go from there.”
Thanks to everyone who attended my jazz history talks last week on the Queen Mary 2 during its voyage from Quebec to Nova Scotia to New York. I got a few requests to post the playlists, so here’s the first one, covering “The Great Jazz Singers (1950-Present).”
The Great Jazz Singers (1950-Present) Playlist
- “A Tisket, A Tasket” – Ella Fitzgerald w/Chick Webb Orchestra (1938).
- “Blue Skies” – Ella Fitzgerald (from Get Happy, 1959)
- “You Make Me Feel So Young” – Frank Sinatra, w/Count Basie Orchestra conducted by Quincy Jones (live video, 1965)
- “Tenderly” – Sarah Vaughan (live video, 1958)
- “I Fall in Love Too Easily” – Chet Baker, from Chet Baker Sings (1958)
- “Chega de Saudade” – João Gilberto from album Chega de Saudade (1959)
- “Every Day I Have the Blues” – Lambert, Hendricks & Ross w/Joe Williams and Count Basie (live video from Playboy’s Penthouse TV show, 1959)
- “No Love Dying” – Gregory Porter (live video from CBS This Morning 2013)
- “I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” – Cecile McLorin Salvant (live video from KNKX Public Radio, 2014)
- “Marrakesh Express” – Accent (video from AccentVocal.com, 2018)
- “Look For The Silver Lining” – Tony Bennet & Bill Charlap, promo video for album of the same name, 2015
Dr. Barry Harris played classic bebop piano to young fans in London on August 11. (Photo by David Friedman)
Barry Harris Trio at Pizza Express, London
London’s current, healthy jazz scene is benefiting from a new crop of exceptional local talent combined with a surge of interest on the part of younger club-goers. These younger listeners are not only going to hear millennial players – they’re also paying their respects to some of the players of the Millennium.
At least that was the conclusion I drew from the encouraging number of younger listeners present for a recent Saturday night set at Pizza Express Live-Soho by the 88-year-old bebop icon Barry Harris. In a somewhat unlikely turn of events, the Pizza Express restaurant chain has become a leading presenter of jazz in the U.K., with five venues, including this attractive cellar jazz club in the heart of Soho.
Dr. Harris (he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Northwestern University in 1995) was vastly influenced by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk (who had been a close friend of Harris). Roughly half of the material on this occasion was tunes written or played by the two piano legends. He appeared with his stalwart U.K. rhythm section, bassist Dave Green and drummer Steve Brown.
At 88, Dr. Harris may walk to the stage slowly, but continues to swing with authority, his focus and stamina at the keyboard undiminished. The youthful crowd had come to hear un-reconstructed bebop, pure from the source. Harris favored ballads and mid-tempo songs all night, but swung with increasing authority as the night progressed, with deft, highly attentive accompaniment from Green and Brown.
He began, a little haltingly, with Powell’s “Oblivion,” then found his footing. It’s not so easy to get your motor started at 88, but, once engaged, it ran smoothly, the pianist patting his heel to the mid-tempo swing and humming along with his solo, increasingly audibly as the night went on.
“Over the Rainbow” was a mildly surprising choice for a bebop pianist, but the bebop treatment proved just the tonic to enliven a song that, for all its greatness, can sound trite in a more traditional setting. What Harris initially lacked in polish – his fluency and speed markedly improved in his second set – he more than made up for in soul. Early on, he didn’t always hit every note cleanly, but his note choices were always right. On this song, and the next, George Shearing’s “She,” he played in the unhurried manner of a past master with nothing to prove, both casual and focused. He turned the packed house, in effect, into his living room, as if the audience was eavesdropping.
They hung on his every note as he wrung pathos from each phrase. I couldn’t help but think about Powell and Monk: If they had they made it to this ripe age, would they have sounded similarly reflective, surrendering some precision and flash for the wisdom of age, saying only what was necessary and respecting the silences?
All evening, bassist Green and drummer Brown kept their eyes locked on Harris, as if holding a babe in arms who might fall from their embrace if they looked away. Displaying sensitivity to his every gesture, they listened as closely as humanly possible. Brown had a smile plastered on his face the whole evening, as if he couldn’t believe his good fortune.
Three more Monk tunes followed: the waltz “Ugly Beauty,” “Off Minor” and “Light Blue.” He then offered an elegiac take on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” before launching into an uptempo “Woody N’ You,” the Dizzy Gillespie warhorse, in the style of Bud Powell. Was his consistent playing behind the beat in the first set intentional or an artifact of old age? There were so many jazz lessons to be had that, in the end, it didn’t matter.
His sprightly original bossa nova, “Nascimento,” proved a palate cleanser. The tune has been covered by Tommy Flanagan and Bobby Hutcherson, among others, but it’s such a “found” melody that it’s remarkable that the tune isn’t better known. With little encouragement, an amen chorus of audience members clapped along and sang “la-las” to the ridiculously catchy melody.
Returning for his second set, Harris seemed somehow younger and more resilient. He began, appropriately enough, with “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” the quintessential London ballad, playing the first chorus solo before the rhythm section joined in at a leisurely pace. Singing along with his solo, he was now locked in tight.
Continuing the sentimental mood, he revived the chestnut “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” a 1942 Irving Berlin tune that featured a melodic and inventive bass solo from Green.
“East of the Sun” followed, swinging gently at a leisurely tempo, then Monk’s famous ballad “Ruby, My Dear,” dead-on. So far in this set, he hadn’t played anything faster than mid-tempo, and proved a total master of his domain.
Calling upon a time-tested bit of show business, he then asked the audience to help him compose a song by picking three numbers from one to eight. Members offered “seven,” “four” and “five.” He considered these numbers for a moment, then announced that the next number would be entitled, “7-4-5 Pizza Express.” (He featured a different version of this tune, called “7-4-3” on his 2003 album Live in New York; only the melody notes were, ever so slightly, different.) The routine calls for the notes to be taken for a spin on a bossa nova framework that changes keys a few times before returning home. It’s all a bit of hocus-pocus requiring a willing suspension of disbelief; it’s fairly obvious that the majority of this song has been pre-composed. No matter. It’s still a delightful tune, whatever three notes the audience suggests.
More ballads followed, Harris sometimes singing a bit, as on “Everything Happens to Me,” where he intoned the poignant last verse, “I fell in love just once, and it had to be with you / Everything happens to me.” On “My Heart Stood Still,” he gently bopped his way through it, in a nod to Powell, who also recorded it.
Another ballad, then, perhaps tiring, he said, “It’s time, isn’t it? Time is so fleeting.” He wrapped it with a reprise of “Nascimento.” Once again, the audience clapped in time and sang along. Indeed, after the show, some youthful audience members walking down Dean Street could be heard whistling it.
Farewell, Lady Soul. And to anyone who has the slightest doubt about her supreme abilities as an improviser in a jazz context, here’s game, set, match. One of the most moving recordings I’ve ever heard. She was beyond category.
Lately I’ve been listening to Egberto Gismonti, one of Brazil’s greatest composers, as I’m working on a piece for DownBeat about a new tribute album to him by virtuoso clarinetist Eddie Daniels. It reminded me of a night in 2014 when I saw Gismonti give a thrilling SRO performance in a church in Paraty, Brazil, as part of the MIMO Festival. I never got around to posting the article I wrote about that night for DownBeat: here it is.
After the concert, I was invited to go to dinner with him and a group of MIMO staff. He told me about a concert he had given some years earlier attended by his mother and aunt, in which he chose not to play a famous song of his called “Palhaço” (which translates as “Pagliaccio” or “Clown”). As he took his bows, some audience members demanded the song, a fan favorite, repeatedly yelling, “Palhaço, Palhaço!” His mother and aunt, apparently unfamiliar with the song, took umbrage. Later they told him, “How can they be so disrespectful! You played so beautifully!” The video below starts slowly, but hang on.