Tag Archives: Downbeat
Until recently, tenor saxophonist Craig Handy was touring with jazz diva Dee Dee Bridgewater. “I really grew to love him,” Dee Dee says. “When I’d introduce him, I’d say, ‘This is my Handy-man. Anything I need, he can fix it!’ He was quite a lady’s man—quite a charmer. He was eye candy for women—big, strapping dude. So I had fun playing with him, playing into the fact that he was good-looking, hamming it up. And he really got in on the act.”
Now Handy has returned as a leader with a new album on OKeh Records (Sony) called Craig Handy and Second-Line Smith. Handy describes the project as “the Jimmy Smith Songbook re-imagined as a high-energy blend of a contemporary jazz quintet and second-line brass band. The sound is rooted in tradition and innovation.” It rocks. Loved writing this article, which was featured in the March 2014 edition of DownBeat.
Jazz trombonist Steve Davis, once a protege of Jackie McLean, is really coming into his own as a composer with his latest album, For Real. Here’s my brief profile of him in the April 2014 DownBeat.
…and 50s R&B at Jazz at Lincoln Center. My review from DownBeat.com:
Catherine Russell and a Tentet Tear It Up at Dizzy’s
“I’m shooting high, got my eye on a star in the sky – I’m shooting high,” Catherine Russell sang in her opening number at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola on Monday night. With a sold-out house at her feet and the club’s floor-to-ceiling views of the twinkling Manhattan skyline at her back, she seemed to have reached the song’s lofty goal.
Russell, a one-woman reclamation project for classic jazz, blues and R&B from the twenties to the fifties, is all about having a good time, and her mood was infectious. After flourishing for decades as a back-up singer for some of the biggest names in music, including Steely Dan, Paul Simon, David Bowie, and many others, Russell is celebrating the release of her fifth CD since launching her solo career in 2006, Bring It Back. “I didn’t start recording my own albums until I was in my late forties,” she told WBGO’s Rhonda Hamilton in a pre-concert interview, “so it’s never too late!” The concert was webcast live on the Jazz at Lincoln Center website (www.jazz.org).
Her years as a supporting player have paid handsome dividends in confidence and performing chops, now that the spotlight is firmly on her. A versatile singer who evokes Bessie Smith one moment and Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington or Peggy Lee the next, she is capable of purring in a lower register that is as warm as cognac but can also hit clarion, Louis Armstrong-like high notes. What really makes her special, however, is not so much her technical gifts; it’s her innate sense of swing, mastery of phrasing and her actor’s ability to fully inhabit her lyrics.
Russell describes her years at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts as pivotal; “one of the best decisions I ever made,” she says. Studying acting was especially helpful with selecting material. “When I choose songs, I choose them first for the lyrics, because if I can’t tell the story, I can’t really sing the song,” she said.
Vintage jazz and R&B is in Russell’s blood: she was born to jazz royalty and proudly carries on the tradition. Her father, Luis Russell, was a big band leader who served as Armstrong’s musical director from 1935 to 1942, recording many hits for Decca. Her mother, Carline Ray, a Julliard-trained guitarist, bassist, composer and contralto, played guitar with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Mary Lou Williams before becoming an in-demand studio bassist.
At Dizzy’s she featured several songs recorded by Armstrong and based on her father’s charts (“I’m Shooting High,” Harold Arlen’s “Public Melody Number One” and “Back O’ Town Blues”), as well as a song written by Mr. Russell for Satchmo but never recorded (“Lucille”). As on the new CD, she combined these swing classics with a potent infusion of hot-blooded blues and R&B from the late forties and fifties.
On “Bring It Back,” a Wynonie Harris track from 1952, Russell sashayed to the languid big band blues, swinging her hips and throwing her body into the lyric, “I love you like you love me/We make a real fine pair/But ain’t nothin’ shakin’ when the dawn starts breakin’/with me over here, and you over there.” In this number, as often during the evening, it was all about the tempo: slower than you might expect, generating a blues feel almost unknown in current popular music, but perhaps ripe for rediscovery (one can hope). Tenor saxophonist Andy Farber and guitarist/musical director Matt Munisteri deepened the groove with solos based in the blues.
Throughout the evening, the big-band arrangements, mostly by Farber, were inventive, swinging and played with panache by an excellent band. “You Got to Swing and Sway,” a dance tune from the thirties by Ida Cox, smartly re-packaged the rhythms of that era. On “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” Farber’s persuasive arrangement of the great Ellington song wittily included an instrumental section that quoted “Once In A While,” another hit of the era, which Armstrong had recorded with Russell’s father. On a stripped-down rendition of Fats Waller’s “You’ve Got Me Under Your Thumb,” Russell was accompanied only by Mark Shane’s exemplary piano, skillfully evoking the stride master, and marvelous comping and soloing by guitarist Munisteri.
Russell’s reading of Al Hibbler’s classic ballad of seduction, “After the Lights Go Down Low,” yielded her biggest ovation of the night as she delivered a pleading, testifying, flat-out sexy performance that seemed to raise the temperature in the room by several degrees.
“A friend of mine turned me on to this Johnny Otis tune,” she said, introducing the nearly forgotten 1952 Esther Phillips hit “Aged and Mellow.” The friend was her sometime boss, Donald Fagen, who showed up to catch the evening’s second show. The hook, “I like my men like I like my whiskey / aged and mellow” – elicited a big laugh and a round of applause. Played at a leisurely pace, the tune was yet another advertisement for the pleasures of slowing the damn thing down, as well as a showcase for Russell’s dramatic talents.
It might be a pipe-dream to think that we’re due for a revival of this kind of entertaining, soul-satisfying big band singing. The crowd at Dizzy’s certainly seemed to go wild for it. One can always dream.
Another great night for music — Cassandra Wilson packed them in at the cavernous Highline Ballroom to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her game-changing album, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn. Here’s my review on DownBeat.com.
Singer Stacey Kent, a star on 3 continents, and her husband, sax player Jim Tomlinson, enchanted a packed house at Birdland recently. My review is here.
My favorite of the bunch: a Nat Cole Trio tribute from 84-year-old Bay Area singer Ed Reed. He’s a find! http://bit.ly/1bRgl0r
Fresh off his highly successful 2013 Steely Dan tour with partner Walter Becker, Donald Fagen demonstrated his continued relevance and creativity with a big win in this year’s DownBeat Reader’s Poll for the album “Sunken Condos” (Reprise), his fourth solo effort. He is also the author of a new book of musical memoirs, “Eminent Hipsters” (Viking). I’ve been a fan since, well, forever, so it was an honor to interview him for the December DownBeat. Read it here — or buy the magazine (at all Barnes & Noble stores).
“The idea that art “moves forward” is misleading anyway; art doesn’t move, art is. Is there a living soul in Jazz more advanced than John Coltrane? Who is beyond Duke Ellington?” – Eric Reed, from his website,www.ericreed.net. I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric for an upcoming article in DownBeat about JALC’s forthcoming collection of free jazz education videos that feature him, among many other jazz artists and historians.
My DownBeat cover story on singer/songwriter Gregory Porter is out now. Read it here. Or better yet, support print journalism, and buy it at a newsstand (Barnes & Noble carries it). Lots of great stuff in the issue, including coverage of the Montreal and Toronto jazz festivals (I wrote the latter) and tons of interesting record reviews.
RT @amorrison2 “#GregoryPorter’s “Liquid Spirit” drops Sept 17. Happy to say my profile of him is cover of Oct #DownBeat, out soon. ” Gregory Porter – Liquid Spirit video
What did Tia Fuller learn from playing in Beyoncé’s all-female band? See my interview with the alto sax star — winner of two DownBeat Rising Star awards this year for alto and flute — from the August 2013 DownBeat.
RT @DownBeatMag “DON BYRON YODELS (REALLY!) & THRILLS @TorontoJazzFest — See the complete Toronto review: ” http://ow.ly/nqWc8
After years of singing mostly songs without words, or in improvised languages of his own invention, Bobby McFerrin has returned to singing the type of songs in which the lyrics are as essential as the music, with words that express his deepest yearnings: spirituals. In my interview with McFerrin, he talks about his early career and influences, why he considers himself a “folk” musician, and the process of creating his new album spirityouall.
Jane Monheit, one of the most accomplished jazz singers of her generation, no longer strives for perfection. Here’s my article from the June 2013 DownBeat.
Alto sax master Paquito D’Rivera resurrects “Charlie Parker w/Strings at Jazz at Lincoln Center. My review in DownBeat: http://ow.ly/kgRhH
My dinner with Wynton. OK, it was lunch. Great sushi and even better conversation. Here’s my interview/profile of him, as published in the December 2012 issue of DownBeat: “Wynton Marsalis – Profoundly Grateful” (DownBeat, Dec. 2012)