CD Review: ‘Jazz Speak,’ Adrian Cunningham

Adrian Cunningham
Arbors Records 2017

Australian jazz musician Adrian Cunningham fronts a prestigious quartet that includes pianist Ted Rosenthal, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Cunningham is now based in New York City when not touring internationally. Patrons who attended the New Year’s Eve concert by Pensacola Symphony got to hear him when he played with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon’s group.

This CD is a mix of familiar tunes plus some lesser known ones as well as some by Cunningham himself. The artist is equally facile with clarinet, tenor saxophone and flute.

As stated, familiar tunes include Arlen and Koehler’s Let’s Fall in Love; Ellington and Bigard’s Mood Indigo, Sidney Bechet’s Petite Fleur along with Bud Powell’s Tempus Fugit. There are five Cunningham originals which are also exciting. One unusual tune, unfamiliar to me, was Lu Wencheng’s Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake. This is Chinese composer, Wencheng’s most famous tune. Purists would not put it in the jazz category, but most would agree it is a relaxed, typical Chinese melody and quite lovely.

Thanks to Arbors records for their help in presenting Mr. Cunningham to the wider jazz audience. As readers of The Syncopated Times jazz monthly already know, Adrian has a monthly column about jazz and his peripatetic activity.

Book Review: ‘Finding Bix,’ Brendan Wolfe

FINDING BIX: The Life and Afterlife of a Jazz Legend
Brendan Wolfe
University of Iowa Press
pp. 235, © 2017; paperback

This is the most recent book about cornetist/pianist/composer Bix Beiderbecke. It is written by a Davenport, Iowa, native, now working at the University of Virginia. Author Brendan Wolfe has a somewhat breezy approach and doesn’t make an effort to recite episodes in Bix’s life in a chronological manner. Also effort is made to discuss, in somewhat light overview, effect of Bix’s life and work on music up to the present day; hence, the significance of afterlife in the title.

Most of the readers of this review will have, a least, an idea of Bix, the musician and his music. To recapitulate briefly, Bix was born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1905 and died of pneumonia complicated by alcoholism in 1933 at age 28. Why is he revered today by so many musicians? He was a talented cornetist, pianist and composer although he never read music proficiently and had help in transcribing his music for other musicians. He was a friend of Hoagy Carmichael and, according to Carmichael, the opening phrase of Carmichael’s Stardust was a phrase from Bix’s performance.

Wolfe spends a good bit of his book in the afterlife category and sometime mixes fictional characters along with actual ones. Although Wolfe is, at least, familiar with music because he mentions playing an instrument in high school band, he spends little time discussing Bix’s music itself. He writes, however, about Bix’s drinking and a couple of sexual escapades.

It is suggested that a reader see the more definitive biographies, Bix: Man and Legend ©1974 by Sudhalter and Evans (now out of print but readily available from used book dealers) or Bix: The Definitive Biography of a Jazz Legend by Jean Pierre Lion © 2007. Then read Wolfe’s book for comparison.

On a personal note, one connection I have with Bix is that his composition In A Mist is on my piano. I’ve played and enjoyed this lovely piece over the years. There are hints of reference to Debussy in this piece. He composed four other piano solos, but he only recorded the former one.

This book will be placed in the Jazz Room of the downtown West Florida Public Library for patron check-out.

On this blog, the reader is referred to a review of a two-CD set, A Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke. One CD is interpretations of Bix’s music by Echoes of Spring, a quartet in Germany with some supplemental musicians. The other CD contains music by Bix as he plays with other musicians under his own leadership or that of Frank Trumbauer or the Jean Goldkette Orchestra. That CD set is available for check-out at the Jazz Room of the downtown West Florida Public Library or available for purchase on the internet. Highly recommended!

CD Review: ‘Sinatra & Jobim @ 50,’ John Pizzarelli

Sinatra & Jobim @50
Featuring Daniel Jobim
Concord Music Group

John Pizzarelli is an outstanding 7-string guitarist/vocalist from a musical family. Coming up in the tradition of his father Bucky, who is still performing at age 90, John has extended and enlarged that role by adding vocals to his musical skills.

According to liner notes, this CD was inspired by some of Frank Sinatra’s vocals and by the emergence, fifty years ago, of Jobim’s influence on the music world with the popularization of bossa-nova. John also sings on this recording with back-up vocals by his wife Jessica Molaskey and daughter Madeline. This is entirely in keeping with the Pizzarelli family’s musical tradition.
John’s brother Martin is a bassist and his sister Mary has made some recordings on guitar with her father, Bucky.

There are ten numbers on this recording by John with one solo piano selection by Daniel Jobim, grandson of composer Antonio Jobim. Instrumentalists on this CD include bassist Mike Karn, pianist Helio Alves, drummer Duduka DaFonseca, tenor saxophonist Harry Allen. All arrangements are by John Pizzarelli except for the piano selection by Daniel Jobim.

Whereas John Pizzarelli can play “hot” guitar—I once saw him do an entire jazz chorus using artificial harmonics, which I thought was a physical impossibility—these arrangements are lovely ballads and present Pizzarelli’s musical viewpoint. In all, a good hour of pleasant listening. One will want to revisit this CD often.

The list of tunes is as follows:
Baubles, Bangles and Beads (Robert Wright-George Forest)
Agua de Beber (Antonio Carlos Jobim-Vinicius De Moreas- Norman Gimbel)
Meditation/ Quiet Night of Quiet Stars (both A. C. Jobim)
Dindi (Jobim)
I Concentrate on You/ Wave (Cole Porter/ Jobim)
Antonio’s Song (Michael Franks)
Two Kites (Antonio Carlos Jobim) piano solo by Daniel Jobim
She’s So Sensitive (John Pizzarelli- Jessica Molaskey)
Bonita (A. C. Jobim)
If You Never Come to Me/ Change Partners (Jobim/ Irving Berlin)
Canto Casual (John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey)

This CD will be placed in the Jazz Room at downtown West Florida Public Library for patron check-out.

CD Review: ‘Bix: A Tribute to Bix Beiderbecke’

Echoes of Spring with guest artists
Act Music

This is a unique two-CD set tribute to Bix Beiderbecke. The first CD is 14 tracks of music associated with Bix Beiderbecke.  It is performed by the Echoes of Spring quartet of musicians: Bernd Lhotzky, piano and music director; Chris Hopkins, alto saxophone; Colin T. Dawson, cornet and trumpet; and Oliver Mewes, drums. That group is supplemented by Shannon Barnett, trombone and vocals; Mulo Francel, c-melody sax and guitar; Pete York, drums, percussion and vocals and Henning Gailing, double bass. Emile Parisien guests on soprano saxophone on Jazz Me Blues.

The second CD in this set consists of original music on which Bix performs. These musical numbers were recorded 1927-1928. Some are listed as Bix Beiderbecke & His Gang, Frank Trumbauer & His Orchestra and Jean Goldkette & His Orchestra.

This unusual CD should appeal to the person just getting acquainted with Bix’s music as well as the established Bix fan. The current musicians didn’t try precisely to reproduce the music of the 1920s but to give their own interpretations. Liner notes by Bernd Lhotzky, in German and English, are also helpful in appreciating careful effort which went into this production.

Of special interest, I hope, will be the following arrangements by the current group and the Bix renditions: At the Jazz Band Ball; I’m Coming Virginia; Thou Swell; Singin’ the Blues and Jazz Me Blues. I will also count trombonist-vocalist Shannon Barnett’s Nix Like Bix in this category as it is based on Blue River, a tune on which Bix played with the Goldkette Orchestra. In Bix’s version, jazz enthusiasts will note Frank Trumbauer, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang among the performers.

The current versions of the tunes are arranged by various members of the group.

A quick search on the internet will reveal various sources from which to purchase this unusual two-CD set.

Bernd Lhotzky and Chris Hopkins kindly answered my queries about the production of this CD.  Their answers follow:

Riff a bit on the concept of a duo album.  Who thought of it?  How long has the idea been extant?

The idea to include a second CD with Bix’ original music came from our producer Siegfried (Siggi) Loch. This decision had an enormous influence on our work and was tremendously benifical to the project. To recreate or copy the originals was something that was out of the question anyway. New ideas & creativity was called for.

From the time you seriously embarked on the project, how long did it take?

It all went fairly quickly. The album was a result of just a few weeks of intensive work.

Tell us how you happened to choose Barnett, Gailing, Francel and York to supplement your group. Did you have many choices in selecting a C-melody sax artist?

The choice of the other musicians for the project we planned together with Siegfried Loch. Our quartet was supplemented with an extra percussion part as well as drums, which give the recordings an unusual sound. Another great idea from our producer was to get Mulo Francel on C-Melody sax, who adds his personal sound to the horn section. Mulo is very popular here and with good reason.

Presumably the original Bix material is now in “public domain,” so not likely any hassle about copyright and royalties. Correct?

Yes, that’s correct.

I thought Shannon Barnett’s contribution was unique—vocals and trombone.  Tell us a little about her.

Shannon’s playing is stunning. Tremendous on her instrument and a very expressive singer with a special timbre. Her intonation and time are simply perfect and together with an astounding sight-reading ability, she possesses inexhaustible inventiveness, enormous energy and great taste. What’s very special about Shannon is her versatility.

Estimated total cost for producing this two-CD album.

I really couldn’t tell you how much the production cost. Thankfully we didn’t have to take care of that side of it. The whole thing was done lavishly with no compromises and with deep respect for Bix’s music. The project was first of all an idea of Siegfried Loch, which was very close to his heart – something that he’d been waiting to do for a long time. In this case any commercial considerations played a secondary role.

What other information would you like our readers to know?

The idea was homage to Bix that is totally different from other tribute projects. Nothing here was copied. We have attempted to present Bix’s music and personality from various perspectives and show them in an entirely new light.

This 2 CD set will be available for check-out at the Jazz Room in downtown West Florida Public Library.

CD Review: ‘Open Book,’ Fred Hersch

Open Book
Fred Hersch, solo piano
Palmetto Records, 2017

Fred Hersch, prolific composer and pianist, releases his newest solo CD and LP to coincide with his memoir Good Things Happen Slowly. Release date for both is September 8.

Most jazzfans know that Hersch has been open about the fact that he’s been living with AIDS for many years. A couple of years ago, he produced a DVD, My Coma Dreams, in which he performs music which came to him as he lay otherwise unconscious from his illness.

He performs Benny Golson’s Whisper Not, Jobim’s Zingaro, Monk’s Eronel and Billy Joel’s And So It Goes. Two of his own pieces include The Orb and Plainsong. His longest, Through the Forest, is almost 20 minutes and he describes improvising this with no preconceived notion of the tune and where it would take him and the listening audience.

As with most of Hersch’s work, it is precisely performed. However, it is not your 1920s Dixieland. The serious listener will, for the most part, be rewarded.

Book Review: ‘Spirits Rejoice!’ by Jason C. Bivins

Spirits Rejoice!
Jazz and American Religion
by Jason C. Bivins
Pp.369 with photos and index
© 2015 Oxford University Press

This book explores the relationship between religion or spirituality and its influence, if any, on American jazz musicians. Little has been done in attempts to correlate these two. The book is written by a gentleman with interests in both areas. Jason C. Bivins is a professor of religion at University of North Carolina and an active jazz guitarist. He’s written reviews for various publications including Cadence, so he has good credentials in both areas.

The book is not an easy read. The first chapter discusses the relationship between spirituality and religion and quotes writers and theologians with which the average reader will be only vaguely familiar, if at all. Other chapters are a bit less opaque in that they deal with specifics and mentions jazz artists with which the reader will likely be familiar with some.

There is a preponderance of African-American musicians discussed here. Duke Ellington is mentioned in relationship to his three sacred concerts performed later in his life. And there is Mary Lou Williams’ example of giving up her jazz career, becoming a devout Roman Catholic and composing some masses, which have become famous.

Then there are other religions such as Islam, Sufiism, Rastafarianism, and some Eastern religions that are discussed. There’s a segment on Sun Ra and his Arkestra. In reading about him, it was hard for me to tell whether he was a complete charlatan or completely deluded. In conversation with the author, his tendency was to give him the benefit of the doubt and call him an “authentic American eccentric.” Also, there is mention on the use of music in Scientology but not enough detail is given for the reader to determine how and to what effect it is used.

There is a chapter called Jazz Communitarianism. The author talks about UGMAA, Union of God’s Musicians in Artists Ascension, founded by Horace Tapscott. There were similar organizations in Chicago and St. Louis. These arose in the late ’50s and ’60s and most have gradually diminished or discontinued with the passing decades.

My advice to the average reader: It might be better to leave the first chapter to be read last. Dig in to some specific examples initially and then read the more theoretical chapter about what other scholars have to say about the interrelation of music, religion and spirituality

Some of the religious and spiritual practices are difficult for this reader to understand. However, Rastafarianism would seem to appeal to a certain segment. They have a slave narrative and there is the practice of dancing and drumming all night, along with the use of marijuana.

Here are some excerpts from telephone and e-mail interview with religion professor and jazz guitarist Bivins, which will, I hope, give further insights into this book:

Your musical instrument(s) and performance experience:

Guitar, primarily electric. I’ve played in bands since I was 14 or 15, and by my early 20s I committed to playing jazz and improvised music almost exclusively. I’ve been on over a dozen records, and have toured in the United States. I am still an active performer and player (though mostly locally in North Carolina.

For whom, primarily, was this book intended; your experience, so far, as to the reception you’d hoped and expected?

It was written for a mix of academic and serious non-academic audiences, and for folks coming either with a primary interest in jazz or with a primary interest in religion. I wanted to teach scholars of religion more about jazz, and I also wanted to teach jazz folks a bit more about religion.

How has it, so far, been received by 1.professional academic religion professors; 2. musician colleagues

Very well received so far. Lots of good reviews, nice press coverage (including a full-page review in Downbeat), dozens of invited talks, radio interviews, etc.

Thinking of other instances where a professional has interest in two areas, is it possible that your musical colleagues think of you as a religion professor and the religion professors think of you primarily as a musician?

I think most of my musician pals just think of me as Jason, which I’m glad about. But they all know what I do and we talk about it, because they’re smart and curious folks. Most of my academic colleagues don’t think of me as a musician at all. In fact, I think most of them are probably totally unaware of it. That’s okay with me, although since I mention this in the book that knowledge is now probably a bit more likely.

Assuming that you have been reared in Christian faith and, further, that you currently hold, more or less to those tenets, what non-Christian faith is appealing to you as a musician and why?

I was raised Episcopalian, though not in a strict household. I’m not a member of any particular community right now, though I see plenty of appeal in a lot of traditions. The phrase “music is my religion” still sounds pretty good to me.

It is said that Martin Luther had some of his best theological thoughts while sitting on the toilet. What/where do you find musical or intellectual stimulation?

Mostly in literature, in nature, and to a certain extent in film too.

Do you have plans for any additional books along musical lines?

Not right now, but I’m certainly open to the idea. It might not be on jazz. Or it might just focus on a single musician rather than a bigger analytic study.

You mention the use of music in Scientology. However, in my reading, your book and elsewhere, I never got a strong sense of detail how music was used for this group (cult). Any comment or clarification?

I’m not sure Scientology itself is particularly musical. It’s just that at a certain moment of jazz history, a bunch of musicians (especially Chick Corea) found their principles useful in performance.

Any questions I should have asked, but didn’t?

Maybe “What interview do you regret not landing?” And the answer would be: Anthony Braxton.

One facetious comment from me: I wasn’t familiar with the details/beliefs of Rastafarianism but I can see how this would appeal to a certain element—night-long sessions of drumming and dancing with associated use of marijuana.

And the music’s good too! I recommend The Congos’ Heart of the Congos.

Another comment: My white jazz-fan friends frequently commented about the Ken Burns TV series on jazz—too much sociology. However, to me the series would have been incomplete without the social commentary on the social conditions of the times. Music and sociological conditions are, in my view, inseparable. Also, my associates all had criticism because their favorite performer(s) didn’t get more air-time. My comment, “I can’t wait until I see your version presented!”

I agree with you. If we take the music seriously, we have a responsibility to understand the bigger picture. That’s basically the motivation for my book.

Another comment, although you mention some white musicians who have been attracted to more obscure religious sects, what, in your opinion, was the motivation for such a transition?

Maybe just the allure of being an outsider.