Tag Archives: Jazz

Old/New Albums: Miles Davis’ “‘Round About Midnight”

milesMiles Davis’ “’Round About Midnight” is giving me a run for my money.

What I mean is that without the intricate knowledge of jazz theory and jazz music in general (I know a fair amount, but boy could I know a lot more), it’s difficult to review an album that is completely instrumental, with the main musical thrust being a trumpet, an instrument about which I know next to nothing. It’s harder for me to listen to this album with a critical ear than it was to listen to Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Dave Digs Disney. But let me give it a try.

I liked this album; no real shock there. I greatly enjoy the gamut of Miles Davis’ canon of work, from his early cool jazz phase (Birth Of The Cool) to his modal stuff (Kind Of Blue) to his later, more experimental stuff (In A Silent Way, On The Corner).

This fits right in between cool and modal, in what Wikipedia tells me is hard bop jazz. And I’d say it’s pretty great. The tunes here are not inaccessible by any means; you can hear song structure and melody lines that are the foundation for the solos.

This album actually kind of reminded me of the Roy Hargrove Quintet concert my wife and I saw in Seattle in 2013 with our wonderful Pacific Northwest pals. Just five guys playing good jazz. There isn’t anything off-putting on this album. It’s a nice blend between Miles’ early stuff and his later years; not a glut of notes played so fast you can hardly keep up with the breakneck speed, and not melodic structures that are so out there you can’t hardly tell there is a song happening.

As with all jazz, I’m drawn to clear cut melodies that I can follow with a beginner’s ear. My favorites here reflect that. The reason “Dear Old Stockholm” landed at #1 is that while the melody isn’t quite as dominant as a song like “Ah-Leu-Cha,” the interplay between the piano (melody) and the horns (improvisation) is fantastic. I think my favorite lick comes in the last 20 seconds of the whole song.

Hard bop jazz is great, and this album is a very good example of it. I really enjoyed listening to it and it will definitely go in the rotation of jazz albums to play around the house. It is a good entry point for jazz beginners and a great addition to Miles’ catalog for fans of his music.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Dear Old Stockholm
  2. Ah-Leu-Cha
  3. Tadd’s Delight

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Old/New Albums: Dinah Washington’s “The Swingin’ Miss ‘D'”

dinahwashingtonMy finding this album is one of those gorgeously fortuitous circumstances where a string of seemingly unconnected events led me to this album. I’ll give you the truncated version:

In October, Colleen and I (and an in-utero Millie) were visiting our good friends Nicholi and Tiffany out in Seattle. We had one last night before heading home and we were running through things we could go do. Nic and Tiffany had researched a few options and one was see who was being featured in the month-long jazz festival. None of us being huge jazz fans, I honestly didn’t think it would happen since none of us would know who was playing.

Wouldn’t you know it, they are running through the list of performers that evening and The Roy Hargrove Quintet was one. I immediately flipped and we called for tickets. Fast forward to the show; we walk into this small, dark jazz club and get seated in a comfortable booth about 30 feet from the stage. I’ve written more about the show here, but let me say it was one of the very best live music experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of having.

Apologies, that really wasn’t that brief. Anyway, one of the songs that RHQ did was “Never Let Me Go.” In fact, if my memory serves me, it was the only song to which Roy Hargrove himself provided vocals. And it was gorgeous. He has such an unexpected voice, and it lent itself to the song so well and was just a heartbreaking song. Heading home, I knew I’d need to do some research on this tune.

Turns out, it’s a song written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for the 1956 film “The Scarlet Hour.” I also found that it was done by the jazz singer Dinah Washington on her record The Swingin’ Miss “D”, released the same year as the film.

Dinah Washington was a name that was just barely on the periphery of my jazz knowledge, but getting to know this record has been wonderful. He vocal tone has quite a warble to it, but it’s far more subtle than say, Snow White’s warble. It is perfectly suited for this orchestral jazz music.

Speaking of the music, look who else’s name is on the cover of the album. It’s one of my Top 5 Favorite Producers*: Quincy Jones. One of the coolest parts of this record is hearing Jones’ orchestra play such a fun array of big band jazz tunes.

The thing that really stuck out to me most is how intricately the musical parts are weaved together. Brass on top of strings on top of percussion on top of whatever else. Within each instrument section, he’s putting lines together that are so beautifully complementary. After hearing his orchestra, it’s fascinating to go back to an album like Thriller and realize that Q was able to produce, arguably, the best pop album of all time because of his work on decades-old albums like The Swingin’ Miss “D”.

While she might not be as immediately well-known as Billie or Ella, Dinah Washington holds her own in the vocal arena. If you fancy yourself a fan of ’40s/’50s big band standards, you’ll get a kick out of this album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Never Let Me Go
  2. Every Time We Say Goodbye
  3. They Don’t Believe Me

*I quickly skimmed this 6-year old blog before I linked to it, and I need to qualify it by saying how out of date the list is. There is a great chance Kanye wouldn’t even make my Top 5 anymore, let alone be number 1. I should redo that list sometime.

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Old/New Albums: Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Dave Digs Disney”

davebrubeckquartetFor the average American, Dave Brubeck is a name that might float into the brain’s associative orbit when the term “jazz” is discussed. There is a much better chance that one will recognize his quartet’s most famous tune “Take Five” from the common-time-signatures-be-damned masterpiece album Time Out. Only in the last two years have I started listening to that album and the rest of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s catalog.

Obviously, since I’m writing about them now, I’m happy I dove into their work. Piano-based jazz from the ’50s and ‘60s is my favorite kind of jazz and it’s the initial connection that my brain associates with the term, quickly followed by the horn players from that same era.

Dave Brubeck is a bit of an exception even within that smaller subset of jazz. His playing still sounds free-form, or “jazzy,” to the new jazz listener, but I connect so much with it because it’s not overly abstract.

This album is the perfect example of the easily-accessible beauty of Dave Brubeck’s type of jazz. Dave Digs Disney was originally a collection of six tunes from various animated Disney movies and later rereleased with two extra songs. I listened to the rerelease for this post.

If you’ve never heard any Dave Brubeck Quartet, I’d recommend getting your hands on Time Out, and if you enjoy it, follow it up with Dave Digs Disney. Even if you don’t recognize all the songs as Disney songs (I didn’t), it’s a wonderfully relaxed set of tunes; a prime example of the smooth interplay between Brubeck on keys and Paul Desmond on alto sax, a musical relationship that had started in the late ’40s and would continue until the late ‘60s.

Back to the songs themselves. Because this album was originally released in 1957, the songs covered are all from Disney’s collection before that year, which unfortunately for me, are a lot of movies with which I’m pretty unfamiliar. The only song I knew kind of well was “So This Is Love,” and I only passingly knew a few of the others, while “Give A Little Whistle,” “One Song” and “Very Good Advice” were all completely new songs to my ear (didn’t watch a lot of Disney Animated Classics as a kid).

To be honest, this track list was a bit of a disappointment for me. The music itself (and the album as a whole) is great, but I would love to hear DBQ take on songs I know and love. “Ev’rybody Wants To Be A Cat” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” songs that date from the ‘60s and ‘70s Disney movies.

That being said, I really enjoyed listening to these tunes. The ones that I didn’t know just ended up sounding like great DBQ tunes, and the ones I did know had a fun jazzy twist to them.

The biggest bummer on the album was “So This Is Love,” from the Cinderella soundtrack. I can hear this one being played slow, with some intricately jazzy chords and just sexiness oozing all over it. DBQ opts for a much faster tempo than the original, and it morphs into a more boppy upbeat number. Which is fine, cause it sounds awesome, but when I first saw this on the tracklist, I was really hoping for a slow-burn jazz piece.

On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got the upbeat “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White. This one is a blast, it is perfectly suited for DBQ’s upbeat spin on it. The original Disney tune is a bit of a drab march, but DBQ crank the tempo up and really hit the 2 and 4 beats, which is more appropriate if it’s off to play the dwarves go. This thing is just whimsically fun all the way through.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Heigh-Ho
  2. Give A Little Whistle
  3. One Song

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Rhapsody In Blue

gershwin90 years and 1 day ago (I missed this by 1 day…), George Gershwin’s magnum opus Rhapsody In Blue premiered at Aeolian Hall in New York. I’m sure in 10 years we’ll all be treated to a bevy of thinkpieces as to why this piece was so important to modern American music and our culture itself, but I’m going to jump the gun and write mine now. I’ll most likely be pretty busy in 10 years.

This piece is deeply rooted in my musical psyche. I fell in love with it after hearing the Cedar Rapids Symphony Orchestra perform it, probably around the age of 9-10 (I would need Mom’s verification for a more accurate estimate). I’m not sure what it was about this piece that awoken such an overwhelming passion for it, but I remember shortly after the orchestra performance finding out that we had the recording on CD, along with Gershwin’s An American In Paris. I must have played that CD to its physical death. Constantly, I’d just play Rhapsody In Blue on repeat and find myself joining along with the orchestra, adding my own vocal “doo-doo-doo-doo, da-da-da-daaaaa, daaaaa, daaaaa” (that is one of the melody riffs in the song). It quickly became my young life’s background music. So there’s one benefit to homeschooling: Gershwin provided the loud, household soundtrack during my math and science work.

What is it about Rhapsody In Blue that caught my ear so much? I believe I was still playing piano at the time, because I remember daydreaming about learning the piano part and performing with the CR Symphony as their special guest, wowing the crowd and whatever homeschooled girl I was crushing on at the time (I would wager homeschoolers daydream much more than public/private school kids. Disparate amounts of external stimuli).

As I was playing piano, I was most likely overcome by Gershwin’s music because I theretofore hadn’t heard anything like it. I was hammering out Baroque, Classical and Romantic tunes like it was nobody’s business. My teacher and I strayed further from contemporary pieces though, so when I heard Rhapsody, I thought it existed in a universe all its own. It was this weird mix of what I thought of as jazz with distinct classical flavors. But it just kept changing as the tune went along. And I remember very distinctly being moved by it, feeling emotions in my heart as I listened. For as much music as I listen to, there are few pieces of music that can actually move me to a tangible emotional reaction. To a place where I am actually floored by what I’m hearing and have to stop in my tracks. As I listen to Rhapsody In Blue as I write, I’ve stopped typing each time I get to the movement that starts around the 10:15 mark. The swell of the strings actually makes me catch my breath as I listen.

And that’s the thing. That swell, the changes in the movements, that emotional reaction all came from the fact that I was hearing culture come to life through this piece. The instruments each became their own characters in the song’s story. As I listen to it now, what I hear (and what I think I identified as a kid) was the sound of a city. A booming metropolis, with cars and trucks and local communities hustle and bustling to work each day and fish markets and kids playing along the sidewalk. I can’t be sure (because I haven’t been there), but at least as a child, what I was hearing was the city of New York in musical form.

Obviously, I am hardly the first to make the connection between this piece and New York. But as New York is so intensely romanticized in American pop culture, it takes on a life of its own to a homeschooled Midwestern kid. The biggest city I’d seen as a 10-year-old was St. Louis, and I’d stuck mostly to the suburbs. In my mind, New York was a giant, it was a myth, it was this magical place that existed in movies and there was traffic and immigrated families and the Empire State Building and jazz and businessmen and the subway and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I could hear all of this in Rhapsody In Blue. That’s why I’m moved by it. I hear the stories of real people in this piece. It’s a relational piece of music, not just an abstract work I can’t connect to. There is sadness and struggle and hard work and defeat and opportunity and joy in these notes and in these instruments.

And I’d never made such an explicit connection between music and real life before. Other classical music, while gorgeous and evocative and moving it its own way, often felt dated to me as a kid. I could listen to (and love) something like Dvorak’s Sympony No. 9 or Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No. 4 and feel an intense range of emotion from the music. But Gershwin’s piece had something I hadn’t heard before. Rhapsody In Blue had a pulse; it was a living, breathing document. Even though it sounded like the New York in the ’20s, that city seems to have such a strong sense of its history that this piece managed to link its past and its present altogether so well.

I don’t think I’ve got the gumption to get into whether this piece is technically a jazz piece or not, or how it has impacted American musical culture and how it changed American classical music. What I do know is that this is one of the first times in my life that I remembered having a distinct, emotional reaction to a piece of music, and that has stayed with me for nearly 20 years. I am indebted to George Gershwin, and I also have to give a shout out to United Airlines for sowing the seeds of love for this tune before I realized what I was hearing.

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The Roy Hargrove Quintet: Live at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, 10.26.13

rhquintet

It’s been about two months since I saw the Roy Hargrove Quintet live in Seattle and I’m still not totally over it. I’ve written before about how I’m not the most die hard live music fan, but this performance was hands down one of best I’ve ever seen and made any hassle of live music shows worthwhile.

It was complete happenstance that we got to see him that night. Our friends Nicholi and Tiffany had scoured the city of Seattle for live performances and had found nothing worth attending, save two jazz groups, neither of whom they knew. Imagine my delight when one of the names they dropped was the Roy Hargrove Quintet.

Roy Hargrove is a jazz musician who has been performing for upwards of a quarter century. He’s played with a slew of incredible musicians, some famous and some not so, and can be found providing lush horn arrangements for a surprising number of decently popular tracks. Among these side gigs are several co-writing and performing credits on D’Angelo’s groundbreaking, pedestal-topping sophomore record, Voodoo. Colls and I got to see him close the Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend in 2011, among probably five to ten thousand fans. It was a great show, so I jumped at the chance to see him again.

We called and got insanely reasonably-priced tickets for the second set of the night, and headed to Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley about 9 PM. We walked into a room that could fit probably about 200 people total. Sensual lighting and clinking glasses, it was as stereotypical as a jazz club can get. We were escorted to our booth, approximately 30 feet away from the stage. Our seats couldn’t have been better. The band is announced and comes on stage; Hargrove immediately kicks off the set and goes to town. From there, it was an hour and a half of jazz.

Lots of people might not think that sounds great, and before this concert, I might have been one of them. But there is something about the way Roy Hargrove plays, and the way his Quintet elicit sounds and melodies out of each other. At times gorgeous, at times smokey, at times spooky, at times frenetic, the music they created together was all over the map. Even with piano/percussion/bass/sax/trumpet, they pulled in sounds of current pop, club music, bebop jazz, and modal jazz. I even heard the Pink Panther riff at one point.

Minus a cloud of cigarette smoke lingering above the musicians, it felt exactly like seeing Miles Davis in 1961. With a contemporary twist. At the show’s closer, Hargrove and Justin Robinson (sax) came off the stage as they were playing and walked among the audience tables. They walked past our booth and I could’ve reached out and touched them. I was literally three feet away from a guy who co-wrote songs on Voodoo. I still can’t get over that. But they morphed the whole smokey ’50s jazz club into a New Orleans Big Band parade with two musicians. I recorded the audio with my phone, and the quality is certainly lacking, but even with poor audio, I’ve listened to the playback of the show probably 20 or 30 times since, and these five musicians coalesced so effortlessly to bring us this ever-changing array of musical styles underneath the umbrella of jazz horns and piano and bass and drums.

The following clip is about three and a half minutes long, and I would encourage you to listen to the whole thing. And go see them live if you get the chance. It really is an insanely cool experience. Can you spot the pop song Hargrove references at 2:50?

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