Movie Review: ‘King of Jazz’

KING OF JAZZ
A Film of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra—1930

The movie, KING OF JAZZ, featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, was recently shown on Turner Movie Channel. This 1930 movie was groundbreaking in a number of ways. It was one of the first movies to be shown in the newly developing Technicolor. In fact, it hadn’t been fully developed and some of the scenes have a greenish tint to them. Also, this was the first movie in which animated and live characters interact; Whiteman and an animated character do a — mercifully — brief dance together.

The sets are gorgeous. One of the most impressive begins with a giant grand piano with extended keyboard at which four pianists pretend to perform. Then one hears the sound of the Whiteman orchestra. The giant piano lid opens and one sees the entire Whiteman orchestra within the confines of the piano. There is no plot. It’s more like a vaudeville show; that is, one act follows another—lots of good-looking women dancers in skimpy outfits. All are impressive for the time period.

The backstory also is fascinating. For that time-period, Whiteman’s orchestra was the most successful both musically and economically. Also, most jazz scholars wouldn’t classify Whiteman’s music as strictly jazz; the orchestra hired outstanding jazz performers. Cornetist Bix Beiderbecke had been an off-and-on performer for Whiteman. Alcoholism was a problem with Bix and by the time the movie was finally made, Bix would die of pneumonia and alcoholism in less than a year. Bing Crosby got his start with Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys and he has several appearances in this movie. However, he was absent for part of it, having been arrested and jailed for drunk driving on a downtown Los Angeles street.

Another backstory tale, it took two trips to Los Angeles to make the movie. The band arrived by train and was scheduled for one month in LA to complete the movie. Whiteman had arranged with the Ford Motor Company to supply Model A Fords at discounted prices for the band members to purchase. Each car had Whiteman’s image and logo on the spare-tire cover in back. When the band arrived, there was nothing for them to do for a month except one studio broadcast a week for radio transmission. The rest of the time was devoted to partying with the movie people. And party they did!

On the second trip, of course, the movie was made and distributed. Unfortunately, this expensive movie didn’t make any money because it was released in the early years of the depression.

If you missed the TBS movie recently, you’re still in luck. The Jazz Room at downtown West Florida Public Library has the DVD. Also, there is a large book made to accompany the improved DVD with many superior photographs and details about how the movie was made. Plus, there are two large encyclopedic volumes about Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, which were compiled from many years of research by Don Rayno. Those volumes, of course, do not circulate but are available for reference. Rayno tracked down those musicians still living for interviews in person, by telephone or letter.

Original “King of Jazz” window card featuring Paul Whiteman, 1930.

CD Review: ‘The Definition of Insanity,’ Tony Monaco

The Definition of Insanity
Tony Monaco- Hammond B3, piano, accordion and voice
Chicken Coop Records—Release date January 18, 2019

Monaco, a Hammond B3 artist, has done it again. With his usual small-group format, which includes guitarist Derek Decenzo, and drummer Tony McClung, he also uses his wife Asake Monaco on piano on a single number, Never Let Me Go.

Monaco is a personal favorite and he earned more converts when he was a featured soloist with his trio at a Pensacola JazzFest in the early 2000s.

The selection of 11 tunes is eclectic. Cars, Trucks and Buses, by keyboardist Page McConnell, is the opener on the CD. Jimmy Smith’s “Root Down” is executed more or less faithfully to the Smith version except that Smith used a bass player whereas Monaco plays the bass part with left hand. Never Let Me Go is a lovely ballad by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and features Monaco also on vocals and his wife Asake on piano.

Monaco’s only original tune, Awar Athar has a Middle Eastern flavor and uses the Turkish scale, which he learned from one of his Turkish students. He sings in Italian and also plays accordion on Non Ti Scordare Di Me a traditional Neapolitan song. Monaco’s rendition of Floyd Cramer’s big hit, Last Date is also memorable. His finale, A Song for You, Leon Russell’s composition, which has been frequently recorded by many artists, is rendered as a vocal as well as keyboard piece.

This CD was a joy to hear and to review. It will be placed in the Jazz Room of the West Florida Public Library for patrons to check out and enjoy as well.

CD Review: ‘Eric Dolphy, Musical Prophet’

There’s a saying some circles: There are two kinds of music, TRAD and STAD. (S—t, that ain’t Dixieland.) If you’re a strict adherent to the former, then this review won’t appeal to you.

However, for the rest of you musically adventurous souls, this may or may not appeal to you. I was aware of Eric Dolphy’s multi-instrumentalism and his important place as a jazz icon, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. The full title of this three-CD set is “Eric Dolphy Musical Prophet; The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions.” It is released by Renaissance Records and produced by Zev Feldman and flautist James Newton. The set is accompanied by a 100-page CD size booklet complete with commentary by various artists. Two of the three recordings are reproduced on CD with supplemental recordings to make an approximate one hour each. The third CD features alternate takes from the previous two recordings, previously unreleased. All are mono-track recordings.

The two recordings previously released are entitled Conversations and Iron Man. The accompanying 100-page booklet includes photographs, description of how the recordings came to be made as well as commentary from various artists about Dolphy’s life and musical artistry. Besides Dolphy, who performs on alto sax, flute and bass clarinet, are the following: William “Prince” Lasha, flute; Huey “Sonny” Simmons, alto sax; Clifford Jordan, soprano sax; Woody Shaw, trumpet; Garvin Bushell, bassoon; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; bassists Richard Davis and Eddie Kahn; and drummers J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett.

Several personal take-aways: the previously unreleased “Muses for Richard Davis” was intriguing duet for Davis’ bass and Dolphy’s bass clarinet. Also, a discussion about how Dolphy would practice flute and birds would respond, so Dolphy’s practice might be interrupted by a flute-bird conversation. This reminded me of my own flute and chromatic harmonica bird conversations. Dolphy was a straight-arrow who avoided the drug/alcohol problems of so many musicians of that era. He was engaged to a Parisian dancer but died in 1964 at age 36 of undiagnosed, untreated diabetic coma in a Berlin hospital.

This is not a recording that is likely to leave the casual listener humming a familiar tune. But it will leave the perceptive listener was a greater appreciation of the talent and skill of multi-instrumentalist Dolphy and his talented performers.

Pensacola library patrons may check out this valuable recording from the Jazz Room of West Florida Public Library.

Two Nina Fritz oil portraits added to Jazz Room collection

Joe Occhipinti by Nina Fritz

Two Nina Fritz oil paintings have been added to the Jazz Room Area at the downtown West Florida Public Library. The latest acquisitions were donated by jazz enthusiast Amelia Asmar.

One of the Fritz paintings shows local jazz saxophonist and band-leader Joe Occhipinti. The other depicts the late world-famous jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines.

Earl “Fatha” Hines by Nina Fritz

For those few who are unfamiliar with Pensacola artist Nina Fritz, she has been a benefactor for the jazz community for many years. There are several of her oil paintings in the jazz room area of the downtown public library. Her paintings are highly prized by many experts in the arts community. For many years, she has supported Pensacola JazzFest by allowing a raffle of a portrait. And she is planning to continue that tradition for this coming Pensacola JazzFest in April 2019.

The Jazz Room collection was started in the mid-1980s as the recordings were transitioning from LP to CD. The Jazz Society of Pensacola has made annual donations toward that effort and the Friends of the West Florida Public Library has matched those donations. Currently, the collection of jazz books, CDs and DVD is valued at $20,000. And library card holders can access the collection through any of the public library branches in Escambia County. The library is in process of accessing another larger order of jazz materials which will include newer CDs and DVDs as well as a number of jazz related movies on DVD. Todd Humble, library director, has researched and found that there is only one other public library in the US which has a dedicated jazz room. Others have music collections but ours is only one of two which is dedicated solely to jazz.

Kristine Crane, in charge of the jazz room and the library reference area, poses with the two newly acquired Nina Fritz oil paintings.

CD Review: ‘Standard Deviations 1 & 2,’ Tobin Mueller

Standard Deviations, Volumes 1 and 2
By Tobin Mueller
Album available CD Baby, Amazon, iTunes

Interestingly, I had reviewed a previous two-CD set, “Afterwords,” exactly one year previously. On receiving this one, my expectations were pleasantly fulfilled. But, first some words about this unusual multi-talented man. In addition to being a pianist/composer/vocalist, he’s a playwright and sometime actor.

The current two-CD set features Tobin on piano, keyboard or organ. Some of the selections have an added instrumentalist such as saxophonist or guitarist. Then Mueller might add vibraphone, drums and/or bass. All selections on this album will be familiar to most jazz listeners. To name a few: God Bless the Child, St. Louis Blues, Take the “A” Train; Autumn Leaves, Stardust, My Funny Valentine and Georgia On My Mind.

All are performed tastefully and in Mueller’s unique style. Hence, his appropriate title of “Standard Deviations.”

So, this is a recommended album for those willing to listen to standard jazz tunes presented in a tasteful yet different style.

See www.tobinmueller.com to get more details on this album and other interesting projects of Mr. Mueller. One can purchase from the usual mail order sources as well as directly from this website.

CD Reviews: ‘Cabin in the Sky,’ ‘Music From the Heart’

Cabin in the Sky
Hendrik Meurkens, chromatic harmonica; Bill Cunliffe, piano
Height Advantage

Music from the Heart
Roger Davidson Quartet featuring Hendrik Meurkens
Soundbrush Records

The common factor in these two recordings is, of course, chromatic harmonicist Hendrik Meurkens. According to publicity accompanying “Cabin in the Sky,’ Meurkens and Cunliffe had long planned to get together for a recording, which occurred June 26, 2015 and April 1, 2016. String arrangement on one number was added later. Meurkens, German born of Dutch parents, immigrated to the U.S. in his mid-30s. He spent time in Brazil, where became entranced with Brazilian-style music. Meurkens is first-call chromatic harmonicist in the style of late Jean “Toots” Thielemans. This recording — with the exception of one strings-added number, Afternoon, a composition by Meurkens — is a mix of jazz standards and compositions both by Cunliffe and Meurkens. Numbers that are likely familiar to jazz fans include Cabin in the Sky; Joe Zawinul’s Young and Fine; Invitation, Bobby Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe; Weill’s Speak Low and Jobim’s Wave.

This recording will remind some jazz fans of the Thielemans and Bill Evans recording, “Affinity.” And the current one doesn’t suffer by comparison. I’m pleased that these two experts finally got together. Let’s hope there are more recordings in the pipe-line. I have one regret; the recording came without liner notes. Let’s hope the second one will come so supplied. For further info see their respective websites:
hendrikmeurkens.com and billcunliffe.com.

Music from the Heart

Music from the Heart features pianist and composer Roger Davidson on piano, Hendrik Meurkens on both chromatic harmonica and vibraphone. The quartet is completed by Edwardo Belo-string bass and Adriano Santos-drums. All compositions are by Roger Davidson. This pianist-composer was previously unfamiliar to me but in reading and listening, I learned that he is talented in many areas of composition. Davidson has a long American lineage and has spent time in Brazil, a similar story to that of Meurkens.

Although the compositions are all new, they have the typical Brazilian flavor and the listener will likely find himself/herself humming along and keeping time to the catchy rhythms.

And, extra treat here, there are a number of tunes on which Meurkens plays vibraphone. The drummer and bassist are an integral part of the quartet and get to “shine” with their occasional solos, too.

Recommended for quiet listening times such as late-night or dinner-time. This one will spin on my own turntable frequently. Non-jazz fans likely will be intrigued as well.

www.rogerdavidsonmusic.net; www.soundbrush.com