Monday, 16 September 2013

Harry "Sweets" Edison

"I don't know why I'm named Sweets. Lester Young gave me that name. I don't know why I deserve the name. No-one knows but him"  Harry "Sweets" Edison.

Whether Lester Young gave Harry Edison his moniker, possibly as a recognition of his disposition or the tone that he produced from his trumpet, the name is perfectly apt. Edison was by all accounts a man with a wry personality and a compendiary wit. The unique and identifiable sound that he got from his trumpet was in many ways a reflection of this personality. His playing was dictated by the maxim of, "It's not how many notes you play, it's how many you leave out."

Edison was an alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra at its peak. He played with the band from 1938 to 1950 and was a disciple of the sound that was to be known as "Basie Economy". Like the leader of the band, he didn't need to play ten notes when one would suffice. Sweets had a very distinct, bluesy sound that other trumpeters would try and ultimately fail to imitate. His signature was a bluesy submachine gun-esque da dee da da da da da dee da.  Yet being part of the Basie setup he understood the importance of how a jazz record had to swing. A fine example would be the song "Sweets" performed by the Basie Orchestra in 1949. Check out the interplay between Basie and Edison. (The fine tenor solo is provided by George Auld.)

Sweets by Count Basie & His Orchestra on Grooveshark

After Basie broke up the orchestra in 1950 Edison relocated to the west coast and pretty much for the rest of his career became one of the most sought after session trumpeters in music. If you've ever heard a classic Frank Sinatra song from the mid 50's then you will have heard Sweets Edison. He worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole and the aforementioned Sinatra to name a few. He knew how to accompany a vocalist in a tasteful, restrained manner, yet his muted sound added an unmistakeable signature to the song. Check out Billie Holiday's "What A Little Moonlight Can Doas case in point.

What a Little Moonlight Can Do by Billie Holiday on Grooveshark

I think Miles Davis summed it up perfectly when he said, "Music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra, I would play the way he sings., or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn't go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed... So, the way you play behind a singer is like the way Harry "Sweets" Edison did with Frank. When Frank stopped singing, then Harry played. A little before and a little afterwards, but not over him; you never play over a singer. You play between"

It Happened in Monterey by Frank Sinatra on Grooveshark

It has been such a joy in listening to the solo albums that Sweets made in the late 50's to early 60's.  In my view his stripped down, sparse style can be compared in artistic terms with the works of Hemingway or Monet. He collaborated with a lot of big names in jazz and produced some fantastic albums. Whether it was swinging out, playing the blues or laying down a smoky ballad, Sweets could do it with aplomb. Here's Embraceable You from an album that he made with Ben Webster in 1962.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Art Tatum

"First you speak of Art Tatum, then you take a long deep breath, and you speak of the other pianists"
Dizzy Gillespie

I could very easily have titled this post "The Case For Art Tatum". He was and remains quite a divisive figure in jazz. There is absolutely no doubting the man's talent when it came to putting fingers onto piano keys. His technique was absolutely sublime and would stop people in their tracks, especially back in the 1930's when he burst on to the scene. Check out Tea For Two his first solo recording from 1932, which remains his most famous track.

Tea for Two by Art Tatum on Grooveshark

I don't think one key on the piano remained untouched! It's also astounding to think that Tatum was almost blind from an early age as well. He was a child prodigy and later was heavily influenced by the popular stride pianists of the 20's including Fats Waller and James P Johnson. It was however the intricate playing of Earl Hines that appeared to have the most effect on him. He preferred to play solo rather than with a band and he was one of the pioneers of early piano jazz soloing that would be exploited more fully by the bebop players in the 40's.

He pretty much scared the bejeesus out of anyone who considered themselves to be a piano player back in the 1930's. After hearing Tatum for the first time Les Paul(!) claimed that "I quit playing the piano right then and there and went to the guitar." Even Fats Waller, who was no slouch, is reported to have said when Tatum showed up at one of his shows, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house". Pianist Teddy Wilson put it very nicely when he said, "Put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art play. Everyone there will sound like an amateur."

Have a look at this short video of Clint Eastwood chatting with Ray Charles about their mutual respect for Art Tatum. There is some fantastic (and quite rare) footage of Tatum himself in the clip.

He was quite the antithesis of a player like Count Basie who liked to play sparse notes and preferred the rhythm section to take care of the bass lines. And herein lies the problem with Art Tatum. He never played one note when he could play ten for which he received criticism. Les Paul, although a fan of Tatum, pinpointed the problem by saying that Tatum's musical ability put him at odds with the general listener. "The more talented (a player) is, the thinner the air gets. When you have that ability it's hard to restrict yourself to playing something as stupid as the melody!"

From my point of view I can see both sides and I would compare Tatum in guitar terms with someone like Yngwie Malmsteen. Their technique is beyond question. Yet listening to both of them for any length of time can be tiresome. Luckily Tatum did make some really fantastic recordings towards the end of his career in a band setting with superb musicians who were able to keep up with and in some ways reign him back into the songs he was playing. I'll sign off with this great track that he did in collaboration with Benny Carter on alto sax and Louis Bellson on drums. Called Blues In C the song really shows how he could combine his pyrotechnics with a wonderful bluesy after hours feel.

Blues in C by Art Tatum on Grooveshark

Monday, 18 February 2013

Earl "Fatha" Hines

If the only song that Earl Hines recorded with Louis Armstrong was "West End Blues" then his place in the history of jazz would undoubtedly have been cemented. As it was, his remarkable career spanned from the 1920's into the early 1980's. He has been described as "the first modern jazz pianist" and he was to have a huge influence over the players that followed him including the likes of Teddy Wilson, Jay McShann and Count Basie.

In the 1920's, stride piano attempted to break away from the stultifying nature of ragtime and was very much to the fore during the Harlem Renaissance scene. One of the biggest hits of the period was "The Charleston", written by stride pianist James P Johnson. Stride piano employed a very "busy" style of play, using a left hand that was required to emulate bass and percussion. Hines was one of the first to break away from this by incorporating more complex accents and beats. He was pretty much doing on the piano what Louis Armstrong was doing with the trumpet in the mid 20's.

The two met in the Musicians Union Hall in Chicago in 1926 and they immediately recognised each others talents. Hines was to replace Lil Hardin Armstrong in the Hot Five and in 1928 they made recording musical history when they recorded "West End Blues". Other numbers recorded at that time included "Beau Koo Jack", "Muggles" and "Tight Like That", pretty much setting the standard for aspiring jazz musicians of the time and beyond. The song "Weather Bird" is a must listen-to.  With free wheeling, innovative improvisation and the highest musicianship this is one of the most important musical cuts of the early 20th century in my opinion.

Weather Bird (Rag) by Louis Armstrong on Grooveshark

Hines held court in the Grand Terrace Cafe in Chicago well into the late 1930's. One of the proprietors of this establishment was none other than Al Capone whose career advice to Hines was "be like the 3 monkeys: you hear nothing, see nothing and say nothing". It was from here that he made his coast to coast radio broadcasts hitting the ears of Nat King Cole and Art Tatum.

A consummate professional (hence the nickname), he was also unafraid to push himself musically. His song "Cavernism" predates the height of the Swing Era by a couple of years although it sounds decidedly post-Goodman. He also gave Charlie Parker his first professional break and worked with Dizzy Gillespie in the early bebop years (unfortunately unrecorded).

He enjoyed something of a purple patch late in his career. He recorded well over 100 albums in the 60's and 70's including some highly acclaimed solo recordings. New Yorker magazine dubbed him "a whole orchestra by himself".

To finish up check out Hines playing with one of my favourite artists and guitarists, Ry Cooder, performing the superb "Ditty Wah Ditty" from Cooder's solo album Paradise and Lunch. 

Ditty Wah Ditty by Ry Cooder on Grooveshark

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Artie Shaw

I first heard clarinetist Artie Shaw when I was looking into the career of Benny Goodman a year or so ago. I more or less dismissed the music and (with complete irrational snobbery) decided to not include him in the blog. I felt the music came across as too smooth without any jazz sensibility with the exception of his recording of Stardust. I could not have been more wrong. Artie Shaw was a consummate musician with a very colouful career and life and to not at least tip my worthless jazz hat in his direction would be to render the intention of this blog meaningless.

I've been playing a greatest hits of Artie Shaw quite a lot recently. It's impossible not to when the first two songs on the collection are Begin The Beguine and the aforementioned Stardust. The former is just one of those songs that you recognise but you don't know exactly where from. The song was an absolutely massive hit when released in 1938. Shaw himself attributes it to the fact that it was a complex and challenging song but one that contained a very strong melody that was in contrast to the popular Basie style riff arrangements that were popular at the time.

Begin the Beguine by Artie Shaw & His Orchestra on Grooveshark

What sets Artie Shaw apart from his contemporaries was his complete contempt of public life and the music industry. In his short musical career he led more than ten orchestras and disbanded them all within months (it seems that he threw in the towel more times than Little Richard!). Yet he always managed to strike gold on his comebacks working with such talents as Billie Holiday, Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge. Check out Stardust with its utterly sublime trumpet solo from Billy Butterfield on trumpet and Jack Jenney on trombone recorded in 1940. (Shaw himself hits some great high notes on this track as well).

Stardust by Artie Shaw on Grooveshark

He served in World War II in the Pacific theatre and earned a medical discharge due to almost losing his hearing after a Japanese bomb attack on his unit. His return to music in the late 40's saw him produce some of the more innovative and inventive music of his career. He tried his hand at classical clarinet and even took a liking to bebop. ("The first time I heard Charlie Parker, I thought "Very interesting." He was doing some things chordally, that hadn't been done before. I came from the same people.") Yet, like for most of the swing era guys who tried to break into this new scene, it was to prove a commercial flop. 

Shaw's legacy was his striving quest for perfection. After achieving all he felt that he could from his music he put down the clarinet for the final time in 1954 at the age of 44 - staggering considering that he lived until his mid 90s. He spent the remainder of his life focusing on his other love - literature - and wrote a number of works including a biography entitled "The Trouble With Cinderella". The book was surprising in that it hardly mentions his eight marriages including those with such stars as Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. I suppose it has something in common with this blog post then!