Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Tom Dempsey/Tim Ferguson Quartet: Beautiful Friendship

Planet Arts
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Beautiful Friendship

This is one of the happiest-sounding quartets I’ve heard in quite awhile.  

Guitarist Tom Dempsey and bassist Tim Ferguson have played together for more than 20 years. Although both also have performed with many of the better-known musicians headquartered in the New York City jazz scene, most of their (relatively limited) discography has featured them together. 

This album includes two musicians whom Dempsey and Ferguson also count as close friends for many years: drummer Eliot Zigmund and tenor/soprano saxophonist Joel Frahm. Zigmund is best known for a stint with the Bill Evans Trio some years back; Frahm has worked with stalwarts such as Maynard Ferguson and Betty Carter. Like Dempsey and Ferguson, Zigmund and Frahm are major elements of the Big Apple jazz community.

This album’s 10 tunes are a mix of originals by Dempsey (“Focus Pocus” and “Ted’s Groove”), Ferguson (“Cakewalk” and “Last Summer”) and the entire quartet (“It’s True”), and standards by Randy Weston, Thad Jones, Vernon Duke, Thelonious Monk and Donald Kahn/Stanley Styne. The latter wrote the title track.

The set is played at moderate to up-tempos, and you can feel the group’s enjoyment during the entire session. Most albums have one or two tunes that stand out, but that isn’t the case here; they’re all a joy to listen to. The interplay between the quartet members is marvelous, and I hope we’ll hear that musical connection again, when these guys get together for future sessions.

The Paul Winter Sextet: Count Me In

Living Music
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Count Me In

Unless you’ve been a jazz fan for half a century or so, the Paul Winter Sextet likely won’t ring a bell in your memory box. That’s a shame, for several reasons: This was the first jazz group invited — by Jackie Kennedy, no less — to perform a concert at the White House; it was the first jazz combo to be sent by the State Department on a six-month tour of 26 Latin American countries; and it was one of the early bands that initiated the bossa nova craze here in the States. 

All that said, Winter’s sextet never made it over the jazz radar: arriving, performing and disbanding during a period of fewer than three years.

Winter was born during the big band era, and his early influences included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton. Winter’s primary instrument was the alto sax. He met Dick Whitsell, who played trumpet, while attending Northwestern University. Whitsell, who was three years older, became Winter’s mentor; they became the nexus of the sextet that followed. 

Both had chosen Northwestern because of its proximity to Chicago, which — at the time — was one of the keystone jazz cities. They formed a band and played fraternity and sorority dances held throughout the Chicago area. Winter and Whitsell wanted a “little” big band, so the sextet was voiced to include three horns — alto sax, trumpet and baritone sax — and a standard rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. The baritone sax was a must, as far as Winter was concerned; he loved the rich, “bottom” sound that instrument gave the band.

Another point of interest: This college group utilized a female vocalist for a short time, and her name was Ann-Margret Olsson. You’ll recall that she later dropped her last name and went on to fame and fortune in Hollywood.

The sextet was selected carefully, although most members weren’t well known at the time. Pianist Warren Bernhardt, a member of the Winter group during its entire life, went on to work with luminaries such as Clark Terry, Gerry Mulligan and Kenny Burell. Baritone saxman Les Rout became a famed teacher and writer; bassist Richard Evans remains active in the R&B and fusion genres. Drummer Harold Jones also still plays, and has worked with dozens of name artists. 

As a group, this sextet won the 1962 Intercollegiate Jazz Festival, was signed by Columbia Records and released several albums, and made the State Department Tour and performed at the White House Concert.

Although active during the period when bebop was the rage, the group didn’t play that genre. Some describe the style as New Age, but however you tag it, these guys swung like crazy. 

This package features two CDs with a total of 42 tracks, including 14 that are previously unreleased. Not even a single jazz standard is included; everything was written by group members, or by composers and arrangers who were their biggest fans. The melodic lines are relatively complex and tightly orchestrated, and the solo work is brilliant. 

This release is a 50th anniversary anthology of this marvelous sextet. It’s an absolute must-have collection for jazz fans who lived during that period, and for younger listeners who want to learn more about the music that existed in America at that time.

Toots Thielemans: Toots 90

Challenge Jazz
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Toots 90

Most jazz fans are familiar with Toots Thielemans, and for a very simple reason: His unlikely primary instrument is the harmonica.

Thielemans was born in Brussels, Belgium, in April 1922, which makes him 91 years old ... and he’s still performing. He began his musical career as a guitarist, and played that instrument in 1949, when he joined a jam session in Paris with Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Max Roach and others. A year later, Thielemans was touring Europe with Benny Goodman’s band. 

Thielemans moved to the States in 1952, worked with Parker and Davis again, and then joined George Shearing’s group. During this period, Thielemans began to whistle with his guitar, and to play the harmonica. 

That opened the gate.

It’s hard to find an artist with whom Thielemans didn’t work, from that point onward. He also became a fixture in audio commercials and film soundtracks.

Everybody who has played the harmonica knows that it’s relatively easy to learn, but it’s more difficult to use as a single-note instrument than a “chordal” one. It’s even tougher to create expressive music with a harmonica. Thielemans is a master at doing both. 

This album, which celebrates his 90th birthday, contains both a CD and a DVD; the former features 11 tunes, three of which — “Waltz for Sonny,” “The Dragon” and “Old Friends” — are his own compositions. The DVD, which covers 2011 concert performances, contains half a dozen of the tunes for which he is most recognized: “Autumn Leaves,” “Turks Fruit,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Saint Thomas,” “Bluesette” and “What a Wonderful World.” Thielemans is supported by Karel Boelell (piano), Hein Van de Geyn (double bass) and Hans van Oosterhout (drums). 

This wonderful release may have a bit too much harmonica for a single sitting, but it’s all choice. Let’s hope that Thielemans still is with us when it’s time to celebrate his first century!