Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sathima Bea Benjamin: A Morning in Paris

Ekapa Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: A Morning in Paris

This recording, and its history, read like a fairy tale. 

It's one of those stories where a near-miracle occurs: The results of that miracle are lost, then found more than 30 years later and, finally, brought to full light after more time passes. 

Sathima Bea Benjamin is a South African vocalist who, although she gained fame singing songs from her own country, is almost an unknown in the jazz genre. In 1963, at the age of 23, she attended a Duke Ellington concert in Paris, France. She managed to catch Ellington's ear after the concert, raved about the ability of her pianist boyfriend (Abdullah Ibrahim), and talked Duke into visiting the Club Africana, where that trio was playing. 

Duke agreed to hear the ensemble, but also insisted that Benjamin sing for him. He was so impressed by both that he arranged for them to record albums for Frank Sinatra's Reprise Records. Ibrahim's album was released, but hers wasn't deemed "commercial" enough to sell ... and subsequently was "lost." 

The tapes for that session re-surfaced in 1996, when they were found by a writer doing a biography of Billy Strayhorn. 

So, what's so special about all of this? 

Well, three pianists backed up Benjamin's album: Ibrahim, Ellington and Strayhorn (one of Duke's arrangers at the time). The other musicians on that session included a bassist, drummer and Svend Asmussen, who played pizzicato violin (plucked, like a guitar, rather than bowed). Its effect, in conjunction with Benjamin's voice, is perfect for this recording. 

All 12 tunes are old "love song" standards that have been done hundreds of times, by as many artists, but you've never heard them performed like this. Benjamin's voice is velvet-smooth: clear as a bell and, as another reviewer has commented, with an "innocence" that just forces you to listen. 

Some of that is lost in her later, African-hued performances, but she was near perfection in this session. 

If you're yearning for the kind of music that meant so much when you were younger, this album is a must!

Dizzy Gillespie: Live at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival

MJF Records
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: Live at the 1965 Monterey Jazz Festival

Once upon a time, the Monterey Jazz Festival was the venue for both audiences and musicians. 

This release was recorded live at the 1965 edition of that annual concert ... and, unfortunately, sounds like it. The festival was a huge, open-air affair, somewhat like a football field with a tent-like structure around the rim and over the stage, located at one end. Most of the audience members were seated in the central area, exposed to whatever weather existed at the time. 

Higher-priced ticket holders were under cover of the "tent," but many were hundreds of feet away from the stage. Needless to say, the acoustics were terrible; at that time, electronic correction devices were relatively unknown. As a result, this CD's auditory quality is really poor. 

In 1965, Dizzy was in his Afro/Cuban phase. He was touring with a basic quintet: himself on trumpet, James Moody on flute and tenor sax, Kenny Barron on piano, Christopher White on bass and Rudy Collins on drums. They had just been augmented by Big Black on congas. 

Although this recording's audio quality is poor, the musical content is much better. Dizzy is at his best: At this stage of his career, he had total command of his instrument and played a lot in the higher trumpet range. Moody was concentrating more on flute than tenor sax, and was excellent on that instrument. Barron was playing pure bop-tinged jazz, and White's bass was a major driving force. 

Collins was an adequate drummer, but in this session his "ride" cymbal was too close to the microphones; as a result, at times he drowns out Moody and Barron. Big Black's congas adds a Latin flavor to the beat, but — for my taste — are overwhelming at times. 

The CD is only a tad more than 45 minutes long, and almost 5 minutes are spent on what was supposed to be a comedic interchange between Dizzy and Big Black after one of the tunes. It might have been amusing at the time, but it sure isn't politically correct now, because of racial references. 

If you must have everything Dizzy ever did, this album may be worthwhile as a collectors item ... but plenty of other discs are musically superior.

The Kim Richman Ensemble: Live At Café Metropol

Origin Arts
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: Live at Café Metropol

Live at Café Metropol is this sextet's first live album, following one earlier studio release; members of the group also have been featured on CDs by other groups. Kim Richmond, once a member of the Stan Kenton orchestra, plays alto and soprano saxophones; trumpeter John Daversa is the son of Jay Daversa who, like Richmond, was a member of the Kenton group. Joey Sellers is the trombonist; pianists Rich Eames and Brian Friedland split the tunes in this release; Kristen Korb is the bassist — one of few women who plays this instrument — and Erik Klass handles the drums. 

As is the case with most live sessions, the musicians react positively; they're obviously having a great time. The ensemble and solo passages are relaxed, and the players obviously are "stretching" as a result of the audience reaction. 

The opening tune, the old standard "You Don't Know What Love Is," gets things off to a really nice start. The following track, "Invitation," is unique in that it's a "spontaneous call" by Richmond; the tune had no written arrangement, and the group didn't know he intended to play it. 

Whatever. It's the album's most moving track; the musicians overcome the surprise factor, and the result is beautiful. 

The CD is split between ballad and up-tempo arrangements, both done with flair. All the solo work is excellent, but I'm particularly impressed by Korb's bass; she's innovative and plays with feeling, yet keeps the beat moving. Daversa is the group's young lion; he's not afraid to venture off the beaten path of a melody and, for the most part, his excursions are positive. 

This is a promising ensemble, and one of the better bands I've heard in some time.

Joe Friedman: Cup o' Joe

By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: Cup o' Joe

Guitarist Joe Friedman began to play at age 10, and recorded his first album at 13. Although he's not well know outside the New York area, he's one of the sidemen used by many name artists — Eartha Kitt, for example — and is in demand by Broadway show orchestras and groups that play in nearby jazz clubs. 

Friedman has been featured on eight CDs recorded by other artists, but this is the first album under his own name. The quintet that backs him consists of a piano, bass, drums and another percussionist; again, none is a "name," but each provides more than adequate support. 

Two tunes were written and arranged by Friedman; the rest are covers of compositions done by Thelonious Monk, Rogers & Hart, George Benson, Horace Silver and other luminaries. Friedman obviously intends to demonstrate his ability to handle a potpourri of tempos and styles. 

This is a nice, straight-ahead jazz group. Friedman is a versatile guitarist, and it's easy to see why he doesn't have any trouble getting gigs, both in the New York club scene and with touring artists.

Michael Berkowitz: Thinking of Gene

Sea Breeze Jazz
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: Thinking of Gene

The Gene in this release is Gene Krupa, who brought the big band drummers into the musical spotlight during the 1930s ... and who kept them there for decades, leading the way for Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and others. 

Krupa was one of the featured artists with Benny Goodman and (later) Tommy Dorsey. He was both an artist on his instrument, and the first drummer who became a showman. Fans came not only to hear and dance to the great Goodman band, but to see and cheer Krupa, just as they did much later for rock stars. 

I'm not sure why people react the way they do when a drummer takes a solo; maybe it's a carry-over from the days when, as infants, we'd all beat on pots and pans. Kids love to make noise; if it's got rhythm, so much the better. 

Krupa has been gone for 35 years, but his fame remains legion. 

Michael Berkowitz is one of his avid fans. He met Krupa in 1964, after a concert in Indianapolis. That meeting changed Berkowitz's life. Not only did he take up the drums, but he began to accumulate every bit of information issued on Krupa, his sidemen and vocalists, and all their careers. After Krupa's death, Berkowitz increased this activity. 

Every arrangement on this album came from Krupa's orchestra "book." The ensemble work is exactly the way the band originally played; even the length of each tune is identical to that recorded on the old 78 rpm records. 

That said, the "new" solo work is contemporary ... and this band swings every bit as much Krupa's original groups. Berkowitz is the drummer, of course, and he naturally sounds just like Krupa. 

Most of the sidemen are (or were) members of the US Army Blues, one of the country's best armed services ensembles. 

Krupa always worked with a top female vocalist; Anita O'Day comes to mind. Annette Sanders fills that role on this album; she's not O'Day, but she does an admirable job of filling her shoes on several tunes the veteran singer made famous, such as "Massachusetts," "Opus One" and "That's What You Think." 

This album, originally recorded for XM Radio, brings back some great memories. If you're a Krupa fan, or want to hear what it was like during the big band years, grab this CD.

The Thelonious Monk Orchestra: At Town Hall

Riverside Recordings
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.7.08
Buy CD: At Town Hall

You can't be a true jazz fan if you don't acknowledge the tremendous contribution that Thelonious Monk made to the genre. 

He was born in 1917 in North Carolina, moved to New York two years later, and began playing piano at age 9. He dropped out of high school in his sophomore year (1935) and began to play in the famous jazz clubs that abounded in the city. 

In 1941, he was hired by drummer Kenny Clarke, then a fixture at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. That's where Monk made his mark among the younger musicians of that time, who were busy creating bebop. Monk became fast friends with Bud Powell, the first bop pianist. 

His skills weren't only recognized by the young artists. I remember an old film that was shot at Minton's, where Count Basie was seated next to Monk's piano, listening to him play; the look on Basie's face said it all. He had a smile a mile wide. The famous Coleman Hawkins, also a fan, hired Monk in 1944. 

Monk made his first recording in 1941, but he didn't start to get the exposure he deserved until '52, when Blue Note signed him. About that time, however, he was arrested for drug possession and lost his cabaret license, which meant he couldn't work legally in New York. 

It was a false accusation: Powell was the real culprit, and Monk had "covered" for him. Six years passed before Monk got his license back. 

Monk was so advanced that even the recording studios that covered jazz were slow to sign him, and they didn't keep him for long. Blue Note, Vogue and Columbia were among the labels that dropped him before he signed with Riverside. This Town Hall concert was recorded live in 1959 and initially released on LP. Riverside, bless them, has begun to re-master and re-release some of the classic records made through the 1950s and '60s; this is one of them. 

The band was legendary: Donald Byrd, Phil Woods and Pepper Adams were among the sidemen. All tunes are Monk originals; when you realize this was done almost 50 years ago, you begin to perceive just how far ahead of everyone he was. Unlike almost all the pianists of that era, Monk was a true two-handed player. He also was among the first to realize the importance of "space and silence."

I've never forgotten one of his quotes, taken from an interview in 1961: "You know, anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords, and make it sound wrong. It's making it sound right that's not easy." 

If you've always been a fan, renew your enthusiasm; if he's new to you, listen and become amazed ... along with those of us who've already realized his genius.