main: May 2007 Archives

Flying east, two experiences melded into a thought around a phrase. Forty-six years and ten days ago, Newton Minow spoke at the annual meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, the organization of people who ran television and radio in the United States. Minow was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcasting. Today broadcasting seems to regulate the FCC, but that's not my point. Here's the section of Minow's speech that contained the phrase.

When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit and loss sheet or rating book to distract you -- and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.

A wasteland. The waste land. Hardly an original construction. It's in the bible, and it's in an eighty-five-year-old poem.

My flights from Seattle to New York City and New York to Rochester constituted an agreeable first experience on Jet Blue. That airline is still often called an upstart, although its startup was years ago and it is quite successful, give or take the occasional snowstorm snafu. One of Jet Blue's points of pride is its seat-back television sets featuring forty-one channels transmitted to the plane from a satellite. In preparation for a book group discussion later this month, my plan for the trip had been to read T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, along with an analysis of that nearly impenetrable1922 poem. After an hour-and-a-half of Eliot, I was ready for something simpler, so I watched television. Full disclosure: I made my living in television news for twenty-five years, but life is full of other pursuits, and I rarely watch TV.

I agree with Minow's first line about television. When it is good, it is magnificent. At the time of his speech in 1961, color television was six years old. So was the TV version of Gun Smoke. Video tape was even younger. Viewers could still see live drama on television. The Andy Griffith Show was brand new, years away from perpetual reruns. The Huntley-Brinkley Report and the CBS Evening News were fifteen minutes long. They delivered the news of the day; the misdeeds of people famous for being famous were not on the menu. The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents were among the prime time dramas. All of those programs were, to apply Minow's strict standard, good. Yesterday on Jet Blue's seat-back console, I found nothing of those programs' quality. Nothing. That includes newscasts from the BBC and CBS. It includes the prime time series, which were uniformly centered on fiery deaths, incest, in-your-face adultery, summary executions at close range and, for comic relief, now and then a car chase. The Daily Show and the Colbert Report showed flashes of wry intelligence, but little that matches the penetrating wit of Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, or even of George Gobel.

The shows devoted to standup comics were beneath criticism. These people claim to be descended from Lennie Bruce? Give me a break.

Eliot's The Waste Land is a difficult poem. It is packed with references and allusions to the bible, Greek mythology, Chaucer and Fraser's The Golden Bough, among other sources reflecting his classical scholarship at Harvard. He tried to explain parts of it in a series of notes, some of which merely muddied the waters. Some critics say that the poem is Eliot's effort to purge himself of the desolation he felt when he contemplated the state of humanity following World War One. In any case, its forecast is of a world whose prospects are for further moral and spiritual decay.

I tend to be an optimist. Nothing I saw on Jet Blue's screen last night encouraged me, but a long time ago I decided not to let television define the world. On the return trip, I'll ignore the seat back monitor and read a book.

May 31, 2007 9:05 PM | | Comments (1)

The Rifftides Staff is off to the The Commission Project's Swing 'n Jazz X. I will send reports from the road when possible. In the meantime, please enjoy browsing the archives, which reach back to the beginning of this endeavor, nearly two years ago. That may seem a short time to YOU.

May 30, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (0)

Time out of the writing crunch to hear successive Jessica Williams concerts was time well spent. Williams has taken a liking to The Seasons and returned there with her new trio for two evenings. On Saturday,Williams, bassist Doug Miller and drummer John Bishop played a Duke Ellington program. The repertoire, except for the infrequently heard calypso "Angelique," was made up of sixteen of Ellington's most familiar pieces. She opened with "C-Jam Blues," closed with "Take the 'A' Train" and included "I Got it Bad," "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me," "Satin Doll" and...well, you get the idea. A routine Ellington lineup, perhaps, but Williams' piano playing and her interaction with Miller and Bishop were far from routine.

Williams employed all of her virtuosity; the improbably long fingers executing piston keystrokes, the extended crossed hands passages, the stride left hand, the tremolos, the polytonality. Still, what captured the crowd was the swing, warmth and humanity of the music. Following a distracted start on "Prelude to a Kiss," Williams called a halt and got sympathetic chuckles from the audience when she said, "If you can forgive others, you can forgive yourself." She started the song again, soloed with passion and comped like a guiding angel behind a Miller bass solo that was a highlight of the concert. Williams' concept for the evening was to program it as if the trio were playing for a dance. Indeed, she encouraged people to dance in the area between the front row of seats and the stage. Three couples did, rather tentatively, during "Mood Indigo," but one of them told me later that the listening was so good, dancing was a distraction. That's an interesting switch on the old complaint "Why don't you play something we can dance to?"

Sunday, Memorial Day eve, Williams premiered a new composition, "Freedom Suite," not related to the 1958 Sonny Rollins piece with the same name. She dedicated the six-movement work to veterans who died in all US wars from the American Revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan. Prefaced with a flag ceremony by women volunteers from a Veterans of Foreign Wars unit, the suite began with an other-worldly piano introduction to Miller's bowing of "Taps," its resonance supported by Williams' impressionistic chords and the shimmering swell of Bishop's cymbals. The movement called "Night Patrol" surged with modal intensity through piano and bass solos into a Bishop drum solo over an insistent pedal point.

Introducing the "Final Wish" section, Williams said, "I finished writing this one at 3:30 or 4:00 o'clock this morning. I wanted it to be perfect--and so far, it is." She showed Bishop the bass part she had written for Miller, explaining the varied rhythms she wanted through a series of eight-bar sections. Bishop nodded and smiled, and with only that discussion for a rehearsal, the trio played the piece for the first time. It remained perfect.

Leaning into the piano, Williams stroked the strings like a harpist, setting up insistent three-four time that supported the dirge of the final movement, "Lament." By way of her virtuosity through an unaccompanied solo that at times suggested an affinity for early McCoy Tyner, she managed to express optimism as well as sadness before Miller and Bishop rejoined her for a final statement of the theme.

This is an initial impression of a work I want to absorb further. We may all have that opportunity. The concert was recorded and could appear on a CD. If that happens, I'll let you know.

May 28, 2007 11:35 PM | | Comments (0)

A contributor with the internet handle Astrotype just sent YouTube five videos taken from a 1966 Dave Brubeck Quartet concert in Germany. If you're thinking of Paul Desmond on this thirtieth anniversary of his death, you may remember him even more kindly as you listen to a "Take Five" solo unlike any other I've heard from him, and a four-minute Desmond rumination on the minor blues of "Koto Song." Brubeck, Desmond, Wright and Morello were in great form, collectively and individually. Rebutting critics who loved to rail against Brubeck, Desmond often praised his friend's sensitive accompaniments. This version of "Take the 'A' Train" offers evidence for the defense. It also has Morello and Brubeck in a spirited, and well photographed, exchange of four-bar phrases.

For Astrotype's menu of five Brubeck videos from the German concert, three new ones of John Coltrane and four of Thelonious Monk, go here, and you'll be glad you stayed home this Memorial Day weekend. Isn't this more fun than being in a traffic jam?*

*For Rifftides readers in other countries, this American form of expression reaches its fullest flower on the weekend set aside to honor those who have fallen in war. Millions of us pile into cars and trucks (also known as SUVs) and park on the roads and freeways, honking horns and swearing oaths in remembrance.

May 27, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (0)

You needn't be a demon sight reader to enjoy Rifftides reader Andy Wiliamson's blog called Jazz Licks. Wililamson transcribes phrases from solos, mostly by saxophonists (he is one). He posts the transcriptions and provides audio clips so that you can read along with the licks as you listen to them. You can check out licks by Stan Getz, James Carter, Wardell Gray, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Miles Davis and others by going here.

Even if your music reading development stopped after the first John Thompson piano book, you won't have much trouble following the lines. Warning: this may prompt you to seek out the records. It could get expensive.

May 26, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (0)

Sonny Rollins has returned home from Stockholm, where he was awarded the Polar Music Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy. Terri Hinte, publicist nonpareil, traveled with him and alerted us to the web site that carries photographs of Mr. Rollins and his co-winner Steve Reich receiving their prizes from the king of Sweden. The site also has a section of pictures of the beautiful people who attended, a history of the prize and its previous winners, and a forty-seven-minute video. I wish you better luck than I had downloading the video.

Each year, the winners are chosen from disparate fields of music. Pairing Rollins and Reich has a nice symmetry; two of the most daring musicians in their not-so-disparate bailiwicks. A collaboration between them could have more potential than if there had been one between the 1995 winners, Mstislav Rostropovitch and Elton John, or between the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev and Led Zeppelin last year. The 1993 winners were Dizzy Gillespie and the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. What a joint project that could have been.

May 25, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (0)

We're heading into Memorial Day weekend, the thirtieth anniversary of Paul Desmond's death.

Musically, what I remember about Paul is how hard he could swing in that really understated way. He had the most amazing time feel in his playing. People never really talked about that part of his playing. He could really swing. There's a lot to Paul Desmond besides that beautiful sound and those beautiful melodies. He was a really strong cat. --Don Thompson

I more or less said that found him the best company of anyone I'd ever known in my life. I found him the most loyal friend I've ever had in my life. I found him the most artistic person I've ever known in my life. I said that his leaving will make this planet a smaller and darker place for everyone.
--Jack Richardson recalling his speech at Desmond's memorial service.

Both quoted in Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond

Last year around this time, I was also in the grips of nostalgia and sentimentality.

May 25, 2007 1:04 AM | | Comments (1)

Posting will be scant and seldom this week. I am still cranking on a flurry of assignments that must be completed before I take off for the Swing 'n Jazz fiesta in Rochester, New York.

One of the pieces is for the next George Mraz CD, which involves the remarkable Czech singer, violinist and actress Iva Bittova. This piece of video has her with the Stampa quartet in what appears to be the St. Nicholas Church in Prague, performing two Janacek songs. I have listened extensively to Bittova and watched several of her videos. She reminds me of no one as much as Elis Regina, the Brazilian marvel who died several years ago. The comparison is not of idiom but of musicianship and irrepressible spirit.

May 21, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (0)

A message from Rubén González:

I´m reading regularly with pleasure Rifftides from Rosario, Argentina...

Sr. González includes a link to his web site and the story of his encounter with jazz in Dublin, Ireland. His account is in Spanish and English and includes video of three Irish musicians named Buckley playing, and playing well.

May 19, 2007 10:10 AM | | Comments (0)

News releases from publicists come in waves by snail mail, e-mail and that ancient technology the fax machine. By rough estimate, at least half concern the latest CDs, concerts or club appearances of legends:

...the legendary _____________(fill in the blank)
...a legend of the (piano, drums, bass, trumpet, oboe ____________(fill in the blank).

Let's consult a dictionary. The one in the dictionary will do; it essentially agrees with the definitions in the Random House and Webster's dictionaries and adds an interesting usage note.

leg·end (lĕj'ənd) n.


a. An unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical.

b. A body or collection of such stories.

c. A romanticized or popularized myth of modern times.

2. One who inspires legends or achieves legendary fame.

[Middle English, from Old French legende, from Medieval Latin (lēctiō) legenda, (lesson) to be read, from Latin, feminine gerundive of legere, to read.]

USAGE NOTE Legend comes from the Latin adjective legenda, "for reading, to be read," which referred only to written stories, not to traditional stories transmitted orally from generation to generation. This restriction also applied to the English word legend when it was first used in the late 14th century in reference to written accounts of saints' lives, but ever since the 15th century legend has been used to refer to traditional stories as well. Today a legend can also be a person or achievement worthy of inspiring such a story--anyone or anything whose fame promises to be enduring, even if the renown is created more by the media than by oral tradition. Thus we speak of the legendary accomplishments of a major-league baseball star or the legendary voice of a famous opera singer. This usage is common journalistic hyperbole, and 55 percent of the Usage Panel accepts it.

I'll try to keep the wisdom of the Usage Panel in mind the next time I read a news release or a liner note about some 23-year-old singer who is a legend. If she's a female singer, she is, of course, a legendary diva.

There's no perbole like hyperbole.

May 18, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (2)

Welcome to Rifftides readers in:

Sydney, Melbourne and Berkeley Vale, Australia

Moscow, Russia

Stockholm and Vastra Gotaland, Sweden;

Baden-Wurttemberg and Niedernhausen, Hessen, Germany

Lisbon, Portugal

Vaud, Switzerland

Marbella, Spain

London, Birmingham and West Ham, Newham, UK

Toronto and York Mills, Ontario, Canada

an unspecified location in Nigeria

Places in the United States from Ephrata, Washington to Ephrata, Pennsylvania

May 18, 2007 1:04 AM | | Comments (1)

In the Jack Sheldon piece (see the next exhibit), I forgot to mention his work on the most recent Tierney Sutton CD. To read about it, go here.

Sheldon brought interesting comments, including one from a man who went to school with him. Click on the "Comments" link at the end of the next piece.

May 17, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (0)

Some time ago, Rifftides reader Steve Sherman wrote, more or less in haiku form:

Jack Sheldon, unpretentious,
one of the best living singers, trumpet players,
always swinging, often touching.

Maybe write something.

I agree with Mr. Sherman's evaluation of Sheldon. I am happy to write something, but first here are passages from a message that came even longer ago from the trombonist, singer, bandleader and alcoholic beverage maven Eric Felten (he is the author of the the "How's Your Drink?" column in the Saturday Wall Street Journal). Mr. Felten was responding to what I wrote about a solo that came fairly early in Sheldon's career.

I am in total agreement with you that the Jack Sheldon solo on "Then I'll Be Tired of You" is one of the great moments in jazz.

The solo was on the The Hi-Los and All That Jazz (dumb title), a 1958 album that has been in and out of print (mostly out) for decades. Sheldon plays the bridge of the song, eight bars of melody. By inflection and a few grace notes, he makes it an endearing personal statement. I wrote in that 2005 posting:

Inexcusably, Columbia has allowed The Hi-Los And All That Jazz to go out of print, but "Then I'll Be Tired of You" is included in this compilation.

Here's more of Eric Felten's message:

I resisted the urge to mention my own recent disc during the Bill Perkins discussion (though my record is dedicated to Perk, who was supposed to be part of the session and died a month ahead of the recording date) because I enjoy being part of the Rifftides discussion and haven't wanted to muck that up with self-promotion.

Oh, go ahead, promote away.

Let me mention my disc to you in the Jack Sheldon context. Jack is on the record and he plays brilliantly. He still has that big fat swaggering sound, and still alternates between broad melodic statements and tumbling bebop lines. And in the studio he keeps everyone in stitches with the bluest jokes imaginable (the sort of jokes that have gotten him barred from a number of L.A. jazz clubs). In other words he's still Jack Sheldon. Perhaps because he's on the West Coast; perhaps because he was so involved in television; or perhaps because of the blue humor: whatever the reason, Sheldon has never received the credit he deserves as an essential jazz musician. But to me he achieves one of the most important things a jazz musician can do -- he has an original and distinctive voice. This is a discrete thing, in my mind, from the question of being an "innovator." As crucial as innovation is, I think that it is just as valid for a musician to find his own distinctive voice even if the idiom in which he is working is not at the cutting edge.
Sheldon.jpg I won't give you Sheldon's history as a trumpeter, singer, comic, television star, motion picture actor and swimming instructor. The biography on his web site will supply all of that. I will tell you about a few recordings of the hundreds he has made.

This page has all four of the albums Sheldon made in the 1950s as a member of the Curtis Counce Quintet with bassist Counce, tenor saxophonist Harold Land, pianist Carl Perkins and drummer Frank Butler. He was a brilliant soloist in a brilliant band.

Capable of drive, hard swing and humor in his playing, Sheldon has a quality of wistfulness that has made him attractive to film composers and producers. He is part of the music that made two abysmal movies worth attending. One was The Sandpiper, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and a bird. Sheldon plays "The Shadow of Your Smile." His treatment of Johnny Mandel's main title theme is as unforgettable as the song itself. Fortunately, you don't have to see the movie to hear the sound track. If you're lucky, you'll find it here. The other film was The Subterraneans, a Jack Kerouac story about the Bohemian life in San Francisco. It translated badly to the screen, despite the presence of Leslie Caron. André Previn's score was sublime. Sheldon's playing in the orchestral portions of the soundtrack is memorable. The directing and acting are not. After I wrote recently about Previn's music for the picture, he sent a message:

I always liked The Subterraneans score, although the film was dreadful. I am pleased and flattered that you remembered the music so kindly.

Who wouldn't remember it kindly?

Now available only as a fairly pricey import CD, drummer Shelly Manne's interpretation of My Fair Lady features Sheldon singing as Henry Higgins, with Irene Kral as Eliza Doolittle. It's a classic.

Here are a few CDs I recommend from the many Sheldon has made as a leader:

Jack Sheldon All-Stars. Mid-fifties big band with Chet Baker, Herb Geller and Conte Candoli, among others. Sheldon plays ravishing melody on "I Had The Craziest Dream."

Class Act. Sheldon in duets with the late Ross Tompkins, his piano sidekick of decades. You will have to imagine Tompkins' deadpan reactions to Sheldon's beyond-the-edge humor. You'll have to imagine the humor, too. But the playing is gorgeous.

Hollywood Heroes. Sheldon singing and playing in 1988 in superb form, with a quartet that includes the stompin' pianist Ray Sherman, a secret too well kept.

JSO Live! Recent Sheldon with his big band. Exhilirating.

California Cool. Even more recent, with his quartet featuring pianist Milcho Leviev, bassist Bruce Lett and drummer Nick Martinis.

Jack Sheldon in New Orleans. This is a DVD made at a club on Bourbon Street with Dave Frishberg on piano, bassist Dave Stone and guitarist John Pisano. There's nothing quite like Sheldon live, and this catches him at his playing and singing best.

May 16, 2007 12:16 AM | | Comments (9)

Deadlines galore: Lead review for Jazz Times (Ron Carter's next CD). Notes for two CDs, George Mraz's Moravian Gems, and Mad Duran's Simply Mad. I'm reading and evaluating the manuscript of a new book by a major jazz biographer. Nonetheless, I have something in mind to post tomorrow or the next day.

May 15, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (0)

If you never had the good luck to see Ray Nance,
Now, thanks to YouTube, you have the chance.

May 13, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (4)

The item in the next exhibit was, I thought, the last Rifftides posting about Rod Levitt. Then Erik Lawrence sent the following message and his obituary of Rod, which is too thorough, touching and well written not to pass along to you. Erik refers to his late father, the multifaceted saxophonist, leader and educator Arnie Lawrence.

(Your piece was) So well put. I knew Rod when I was a child, as my father played alto in the last incarnation of the Rod Levitt Orchestra. Years later my family and I moved to Vermont and heard he lived nearby. We met and despite the beginning of his declining health he became very excited about a recreation of his music. I put together a group and we performed it twice in honor of his 75th birthday. I even convinced him to join the local ragtag big band, which he really enjoyed.

Jean called me as well and asked that I write an obituary based on an article I'd written about Rod in January 2006. I've copied it below.

I was blessed to know Rod and Jean. Bringing him and his music back to the stage stands as one of the greatest things I've ever done.

In Peace,

Rod Levitt, In Memoriam
By Erik Lawrence

Rod Levitt, jazz trombonist, composer and arranger, 77, died quietly in his sleep late Tuesday night, May 8th, 2007 at his home in Wardsboro, Vermont after a courageous battle with Alzheimer's Disease.

Born in September 16th, 1929 and raised in Portland, Oregon, Rod took his love for jazz and his trombone to the University of Washington. It was there he studied music theory, harmony and arranging. Many top bands come through the city of Seattle. It was there that he met a talented a young trumpeter, still in high school, named Quincy Jones. This association put Rod to work in young Quincy's band, which featured another young jazz artist, singer Ernestine Anderson.

Four years in the Air Force allowed Rod to hone his arranging skills. He played piano and trombone and arranged for the 722nd Regiment Air Force band. They would play dances 5 or 6 nights a week.

Upon finishing his military career Rod made his way to NY, found an apartment and started picking up work as a versatile trombonist, continuing his graduate education at Mannes School of Music. The musician's union building, local 802, was the place to meet other musicians and bandleaders and find out about work. On his way there one day he bumped into his old friend Quincy again. Quincy quickly offered Rod a gig on the road with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra. And Rod was on his way.

He spent a year touring with Dizzy Gillespie, the "clown prince of bebop". This included several recordings. Dizzy In South America offers a recorded interview with Rod and saxophonist Benny Golson. When asked recently whether Dizzy's joking and showmanship caused his music to suffer Rod quickly said no. "You can't hear that on records!"

Rod's association with Gillespie carried on throughout much of his own career. But upon returning from this first tour he began to find work in town and his reputation brought him into the elite rank as a strong player with many tools, reading, improvising and arranging. Evidence of his work is clear on recordings from that time with Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine, Benny Golson, Gil Evans and many others. A television show is now available showing Rod playing in an ensemble "in the round" under the direction of Gil Evans, featuring the groundbreaking quintet of Miles Davis with John Coltrane.

In 1958 Rod took a job playing in the symphony orchestra at New York's famed Radio City Music Hall, which he maintained for thirteen years. In 1959 he caught the eye of the newest member of the legendary Rockettes. "Who is that man with the Trombone?" she asked on her very first day of work, "Rod Levitt!!! I have all of his records!" Rod and Jean Levitt were married in 1962. They never stopped giggling like school kids about meeting and finding one another.

With a good job and a strong work ethic Rod found opportunities for writing more and more for various musical settings. The recording industry was based primarily in New York and was still in infant stages of technology. Talented craftsmen were responsible for using skills creatively to make recordings that would stand the test of time.

The field of television was blossoming and work was available for musicians who could play and write for commercials (called "jingles"), theme music and soundtracks. Rod found he liked the challenge and diversity of writing music for commercials and moved in that direction. In this setting he had the opportunity to write for an orchestra or flute choir, a playful ditty, or a steamy jazz piece. He would make use of the best musicians and singers available. In a very challenging and competitive field, he was in demand as a top writer, creating the music for thousands of commercials for every product imaginable. The ad men who hired him would not always understand what was and wasn't possible with music. Quoting Rod, "Sometimes they told you what they wanted, now that was dangerous!"

Despite the years and advancing Alzheimer's, he could always sing the music he wrote and tell you exactly when he did what and with whom. Much of this is quite interesting. Once he flew to Chicago to record Mahalia Jackson in her living room. Another time he used the brilliant blind reedman Rahsaan Roland Kirk for a spot for Chemical Bank. During this time he also scored music for the film score Bush Doctor, featuring Hugh O'Brian.

This dedication to excellence and strong work ethic also produced the Rod Levitt Orchestra in the 1960's, perhaps his crowning achievement. This eight piece ensemble earned its title of orchestra with the brilliant arrangements and the virtuosity it demanded of his players as strong readers, the ability to play several instruments, thus expanding his palette of musical 'colors' and top level improvising.

From 1962 through 65 Rod wrote prolifically for this group and recorded four celebrated albums. His Dynamic Sound Patterns is currently available on CD. These recordings put him in the pantheon of jazz arrangers. Jazz is a collective art form and only a very few receive the popularity and success they deserve. Critically a hit, he never was able to get enough attention with this ensemble. Though they never released a recording after 1966, the dedicated members played his music and he continued to write for the Orchestra for at least a decade more.

Soft spoken and very wise, Rod had done the nearly impossible in music many times over. He made a fine living, he stayed on a clean path of health, raised a family and he even retired! He lived out his last few years in rural Vermont with his bride Jean. When asked what retirement is like for a musician, he responded; "I practice every day. I pull out my arrangements and check them over (author's note: these arrangments were perfect forty years ago). In fact I wrote a method book for the trombone. I call it Sure Way to Chops in 20 Minutes a Day. That's the hawker in me coming out!" he said in an interview in January, 2006, harkening back to the jingle days.

Mr. Levitt is survived by his wife Jean, of Wardsboro, Vermont and son Barry, of Miami, Florida.

To learn more about Erik Lawrence and hear the cavernous sound of his baritone saxophone, go here.

May 12, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (1)

It was a phone call I wished never to receive and knew was inevitable. Rod Levitt's wife Jean called to report that he died peacefully in his sleep the night of May 8. A composer and arranger of inventiveness, warmth and resourcefulness, a trombonist whose kindness and humor radiated in his playing, Rod had Alzheimer's. He was not warehoused in an institution, as so many Alzheimer's patients must be. Jean kept him with her at home in Vermont. She said that although much of his past had slipped away, he kept his horn near and played it this week even as he was declining.

"You know, his trombone, his music, were his life," Jean said. She left out the most important element in his life, Jean.

Mrs. Levitt said that they kept printouts of the Rifftides pieces about him in a neat stack on his desk and that he often asked her to read them to him. She said he was moved by the comments from Rifftides readers. For background on Rod and links to his music, see this item from January, and this followup from Steve Schwartz about Rod in his final years. Here is a little of what I wrote about the importance of his albums:

They comprise a body of recordings that are fresh, evocative and enormously entertaining forty years later. The writing was daring, finely crafted and marinated in wit.

The bassist Bill Crow knew Rod more than a decade longer than I did. He sent this recollection.

When I got out of the Army in 1949 and returned to my studies at the University of Washington, I soon discovered the afternoon jam sessions that went on in the U.'s music annex. I was a bebop valve trombonist and sometime drummer in those days. I met Rod Levitt at one of those jams, and we hung out a little together on the Seattle music scene until the winter of 1950, when Buzzy Bridgeford, a drummer from Olympia, invited me to go with him when he went back to New York. I kept hearing about Rod, but when he came to New York, he didn't hang with the same people I was interested in at that time. Whenever our paths crossed, we had a nice reunion, and he called me to play on a couple of his projects, which I enjoyed very much. I liked his playing and his writing, and always appreciated his sunny disposition.

Rod Levitt would have been seventy-eight in September.

May 11, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (2)

As if our friend and fellow blogger Terry Teachout weren't polymath enough, he's extending his cultural breadth. On his blog, About Last Night, he announces:

I'm writing an opera.



That's what I thought he said. To get the details, go here.

May 11, 2007 1:04 AM | | Comments (1)

The Rifftides staff is pleased to announced that (finally) we have posted a new group of Doug's Picks in the right-hand column. A reminder: We now archive the Picks. To see past entries, click on "More Picks" at the end of the current crop.

May 9, 2007 1:06 AM | | Comments (1)

Confession: Until recently, I could not get with Robert Schumann. I found him dull. The nineteenth century composer and pianist is, by general agreement, in the front rank of German romanticism, so I assumed that the shortcoming was mine. I was right. I wasn't paying attention. What caused me to turn the corner on Schumann was "Waldesgesprach," a piece of his lieder based on the work of the poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff. I heard the song for the first time at a recital by Phil Grothaus, a tenor, and Andrea Prentice, a pianist, who live in my town.

Sub-confession: I've also never cared much for lieder, art songs set to poetry, usually German. That began to change a few years ago when I acquired a boxed set of Schubert lieder sung by the astounding Dieter Fischer-Dieskau with Gerald Moore at the piano (This CD is a generous sampler). I had always loved Schubert, but was put off by anyone's lieder. Fischer-Dieskau turned that. Now, I am hooked on "Waldesgesprach" and warming to Schumann because of Mr. Grothaus's and Ms. Prentice's charming negotiation of its intriguing harmonies, which to my ear put Schumann far ahead of his time. He wrote it in 1840 during a flurry of lieder composition.

This experience helped me to understand why composers whose harmonic palettes I admire, among them Brahms, Faure and Elgar, were inspired by Schumann. I can't imagine that Debussy and Ravel did not also study him. Go here to listen to recordings, in their entirety, of several artists' interpretations of the song. They include Fischer-Dieskau with Alfred Brendel at the piano. See how you like it. If you think it took me too long to open my ears to Schumann, you'll be right.

What does this have to do with jazz? Nothing, unless you accept that there is no such thing as jazz harmony. All harmony in jazz was first used by the great composers from before Bach to Stravinsky. To extrapolate loosely, you might say: no Schumann--no Tadd Dameron.

For a comprehensive biography and a nifty picture of Schumann, go here.

This CD has Fischer-Dieskau with his ideal accompanist Gerald Moore (every classical singer's ideal accompanist) singing "Waldesgesprach" and several other pieces of Schumann lieder even better than he did with Brendel.

May 8, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (2)

Carol Sloane, long one of my favorite singers, now also my favorite new blogette, is telling marvelous stories. Do yourself a favor. Go to her blog, read both parts of Jimmy Rowles' adventures with Placido Domingo and her tale of introducing Cannonball Adderley to the music of Mstislav Rostropovich.

May 8, 2007 1:04 AM | | Comments (0)

The news of Alvin Batiste's death of an apparent heart attack early Sunday morning came as I was preparing to write a few words about his new CD. A great clarinetist, a masterly transmitter of the jazz tradition, Batiste was scheduled to play Sunday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., two of the legion of Louisiana musicians who learned from him. As head of the music department at Southern University in Baton Rouge, much of Batiste's teaching was in that four-year institution, but in recent years he was also the primary teacher of jazz instrumental music at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).Batiste.jpg
He teamed with NOCCA's founder, his lifelong friend Ellis Marsalis, to help shape the abilities of Connick, the Marsalis brothers (Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason), drummer Herlin Riley, saxophonist Donald Harrison and dozens of other young New Orleans musicians who have become prominent in jazz.

The first black soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic, Batiste was thoroughly grounded in the formal rules of music and brilliant in breaking them. As effective in free music as he was in traditional jazz and bebop, Batiste jammed with Ornette Coleman during Coleman's New Orleans sojourn in the 1950s. Along with Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, Ed Blackwell, James Black, Melvin Lastie, Al Belletto, Warren Bell, Jr. and a few others who fell under the spell of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and other pioneers of bebop, he helped establish modern jazz in the city.

In my encounters with Batiste in New Orleans over the years, I found him kind and gracious, with an endearing soft humor. In Batiste the educator those qualities were wrapped around a core of iron; he once ejected Branford Marsalis from the Southern University jazz band for insufficient commitment. Marsalis later said that the experience concentrated his focus. He went on to become one of the deepest improvising musicians of his generation.

Batiste's Cd titled Alvin Batiste is an initial release in the Honor Series on the Marsalis Music label. It was produced by Branford Marsalis, who plays saxophone on three of its tracks. Riley is the drummer. The other name musician is guitarist Russell Malone. They are supported by two youngsters Marsalis recommended, pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Ricardo Rodriguez, both impressive in this fast company. Singer Edward Perkins appears on four tracks. Batiste has played farther out than he does in this collection, but the CD provides a broad acquaintance with his scope, his daring and the depth of his fat sound. Seven of the ten compositions are Batiste's, including "The Latest," based on John Coltrane's "Countdown" and the funky anthem "Salty Dogs," which was adopted years ago by Cannonball Adderley. Exchanging phrases on "My Life Is A Tree," Batiste and Marsalis, on tenor sax, are continuations of the same line of thought. Batiste's bebop foundation is in stimulating evidence in the "Cherokee" derivative called "Bat Trad."

Batiste's concentration on music education kept him occupied. As a result, there is precious little of him on recordings. We may consider the CD Alvin Batiste a posthumous gift.

Quint Davis, the director of the New Orleans JazzFest, sums up Batiste's importance in this interview with WDSU-TV. The New Orleans Times Picayune combines an obituary and a wrapup of the concert that replaced Batiste's appearance at the festival.

Branford Marsalis will play with his quintet this week at The Seasons. I look forward to reminiscing with him about his friend and mentor.

May 7, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (1)

The bassist David Friesen, an explorer, does not rule out the customary jazz trio instrumentation of piano, bass and drums; he had a superb trio with pianist Randy Porter and drummer Alan Jones. But for him the traditional configuration does not define the trio concept. Friesen has led trios in which the other instruments were Bud Shank's alto sax and Clark Terry's flugelhorn; Paul Horn's flute and Jeff Johnson's bass; Larry Koonse's guitar and Joe LaBarbera's drums; John Stowell's guitar and Jeannie Hoffman's piano; Gary Barone's trumpet and Jones's drums.

The other night at The Seasons, the sidemen in Friesen's trio were pianist Greg Goebel and saxophonist Rob Davis, young musicians little known outside the Pacific Northwest but with the talent to make larger waves. With Goebel at a nine-foot Steinway to his right and Davis on a stool to his left, Friesen sat center stage cradling his Hemage electric bass in cello position, Friesen.jpg leading the trio through a concert of thirteen of his compositions. The harmonic depth, intense rhythm and subtle interaction they employed mesmerized a small audience. It is hard to imagine that after the first couple of tunes anyone thought about the absence of a drummer. The irresistible swing on a piece called "Wrinkle" came in great part from Friesen strumming his bass the way Freddie Green strummed his guitar for Count Basie, and getting the same result, quiet power. Davis's sound on tenor saxophone has an agreeable graininess, on soprano a fullness unlike the strangled tone that so many soprano saxophonists cultivate. His soprano solo on "Goal in Mind," which is built on what my notes call "sort of old-timey" harmonies, concentrated joy in flowing lines of spontaneous composition.

In Friesen's solos, technical mastery is in the service of lyrical expression. He applies just enough virtuosic display to impress the listener, but cuts it considerably short of being a hip cornball. Unlike many jazz tunes, Friesen's pieces are generally not based on the chords of standard songs, but on original harmonic structures loaded with challenges. Goebel and Davis thrived on the complexities. Concentrating on the lower register of the Steinway in "One Last Time," Goebel's solo rumbled with harmonic surprises that elicited a whoop from Friesen and earned sustained applause from the audience. Even in the blues, Friesen finds ways to be different. The trio played an eleven-bar blues and a ten-bar blues and, at the end, a standard twelve-bar blues with what Friesen identified as "funny changes." It still felt like the blues, but the sophisticated harmonies gave it a wry character all its own. Indeed, everything the trio played was colored with a pronounced individuality. Friesen has not recorded with this group. I hope that he will.

In the meantime, there is plenty of Friesen on CD. His web site has an extensive discograhy. His newest release, a duo with the late pianist Mal Waldron, has been on hold since it was recorded at a hotel engagement in Los Angeles in 1985. They worked together regularly in the eighties and developed remarkable empathy, which is captured admirably in this live date. You can hear Davis and Goebel in good form with PDXV, a quintet based in Portland, Oregon. The band also includes trumpeter Dick Titterington, bassist Dave Captein and drummer Todd Strait. Their first CD on Titterington's Heavywood label is called, logically enough, PDXV Jazz Quintet of Portland, OR, Vol. 1.

May 4, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (1)

Hotel Pianist no longer blogs, thanks to having been outed by a numbskull fellow blogger. From time to time, though, she sends e-mail messages. This is the latest one:

Musician Jokes

I have two musician jokes for you today:

1. I'm often bored enough to drool at the piano. One way I try to counteract this boredom is by pretending I'm the "bass player" after I improvise a piano solo; I'll do a little solo with my left hand while comping with my right. Last week, a saxophonist friend of mine came to listen in the lobby. When I started to play with my left hand, she joked: "Bass solo! Time to start talking."

2. There's a little joke among jazz musicians at jam sessions. You go up to someone and say, "You sounded good. HOW'D I SOUND?" Well, tonight a man came in who embodied this joke, but he wasn't a jazz musician - he was a drunk who occasionally does some sort of work for the restaurant management.

He sat down next to me and asked, "How do I look?" In my dreams, I replied, "You have a face only a mother could love," but in actuality I shrugged, "Fine."

Then he requested "Someone To Watch Over Me." I started to play this lovely tune and, of course, he started to warble over it. He could barely remember any of the words, but after I had played the last chord, there was the inevitable question from him: "How do I sound?"

I'm glad he stopped with that; I was worried the next question would be, 'How do I SMELL?"

May 4, 2007 1:04 AM | | Comments (0)

Louis Armstrong said that if you had to ask, you'd never know. That did not prevent Sid Caesar from attempting to answer the question on Your Show Of Shows in 1956.

Have a good weekend.

May 4, 2007 1:03 AM | | Comments (0)

Duke Ellington's urbanity and sophistication are part of jazz lore, but as the years go by there are fewer people who had direct exposure to his personality. Rare video of a 1963 interview provides a generous sample of Ellington's charm. It also demonstrates the carefully crafted line of patter that served him both as effective public relations and as a layer of protection around a highly visible man who managed to keep himself private. Ellington spoke with Sven Lindahl of SVT, the Swedish broadcasting system.

The interview on SVT's web site comes in two parts. This link takes you to part 1, in which Ellington gives elegant expression to his view of a future in which music would be without categories. To view part 2, you must go to this link and scroll up to "Duke Ellington del 2" in the menu labeled öppet arkiv on the right side of the screen.

Thanks to the musicologist Andrew Homzy of Concordia University in Montreal for leading the Rifftides staff to this valuable piece of history.

May 2, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (0)

A few days ago, Rifftides alerted you to a concert posthumously honoring the Voice of America's Willis Conover, whom we described as one of the most effective public diplomats in US history. Washington correspondent John Birchard, a veteran VOA broadcaster, attended the concert and sent this report.

I think Willis would have liked THE FIRST ANNUAL WILLIS CONOVER MEMORIAL CONCERT. He might have been a little uncomfortable with the title (he was pretty modest - for a radio guy), but the concert contained elements he would have appreciated: kids trying out their skills in the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra, the discovery of a "new" band, and the classics getting their due from the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

The concert was the brainchild of Harry Schnipper, the entrepreneur who has kept Washington's Blues Alley nightclub alive through thick and thin. The Blues Alley Jazz Society and the Smithsonian Institution were the official "presenters" that arranged for the use of the Voice Of America auditorium for the event Saturday, April 28th. The purpose of the concert was "to memorialize the legacy of Willis Conover and his efforts to extend jazz music...through the radio waves of the Voice of America."

The Blues Alley Youth Orchestra opened the evening. The Orchestra, now in its 20th year, is made up of 14- to 17-year-olds from the Washington area. The band is subject to all the challenges that young musicians must overcome: uncertain intonation and time, solos that wander into a cul de sac of confusion, and teen-age shyness about standing out from the crowd. And then, there will be moments when a youngster gets off a good chorus and sits down with an embarrassed grin at the applause. Congratulations to Blues Alley for sticking with this educational effort.

Next came one of those segments that jazz fans live for: the jaw-dropping surprise. I was not familiar with the U-S Military Academy's Jazz Knights. Expecting a band of college students, the first surprise was these guys were grown-ups, career military musicians like the widely-known Airmen of Note, the Navy's Commodores and the Army Blues, all stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. I've long appreciated those three bands as the top of the tree in their respective services. JazzKnights.jpgWell, make room for the Jazz Knights from West Point. All of the band members are sergeants, ranging from staff to master sergeant. The Knights hit with a bright original, "Without a Doubt". Ensembles were crisp and tight. Alto saxophonist Derrick James made clear right away his claim on the audience's attention with a fiery solo. James made way for trumpeter Vito Speranza, whose tone put me in mind of Pete Candoli and whose attack was confident, even swaggering. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.

Mike Abene's arrangement of the Brazilian-flavored "Estate" was a showcase for the soprano sax work of Mike Reifenberg. Sergeant Reifenberg has a full, liquid sound used with dramatic effect on the lovely melody. He also has chops to spare and brought them to bear during his improvisation.

Snappy brushwork from drummer Bob Jones propelled Abene's arrangement of Karolina Strassmeyer's "The Sweeper," Eric Ordway's trombone solo shifted the piece into overdrive. Ordway gets around on the unwieldy horn in the virtuosic manner of the late Frank Rosolino, which ain't chopped liver. Another strong solo from Derrick James rounded out the performance.

The Jazz Knights don't have a weak link. According to the information on their CD "Commissions 2006", they do some traveling around the northeast, bringing free concerts to the public. If they show up in your neighborhood, you won't be disappointed if you seek them out.

Master of ceremonies Dick Golden's warm presentation included portions of interviews Willis Conover did over the years on VOA with Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. As Ellington made his recorded exit with some typically charming remarks about Willis, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra under David Baker began its portion of the show with "Take the A Train," appropriate for the occasion but in a perfunctory performance. Baker's own "Cotton Club Revisited" followed, then a Bob Mintzer arrangement of Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance". The band didn't strike sparks until it played Sonny Rollins' "Doxy." Trumpeter Kenny Rittenhouse soloed with funk and humor, producing smiles on band members' faces and enthusiasm from the audience. The trumpeter seemed to inspire tenorman Tedd Baker and pianist Tony Nalker to some enjoyable solos.

But then it was back to re-creating jazz history with Frank Foster's "Shiny Stockings". Nice, but lacking in pizzazz. Technically, the band runs down the historical charts with authentic style. The members can clearly play their instruments, but when the night is over what have you got? As you might be able to discern from these remarks, I'm not a fan of jazz repertory bands. I'd much rather hear a bad-but-enthusiastic original than the most competent copy. And the very name of this band - the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra - seems like pretty heavy baggage to lug around.

I don't know where Willis would come down in this debate, but throughout his long and distinguished career he seems to have emphasized the originals, the real thing,. Full disclosure: I am not an unbiased observer. I am a 14-year employee at the Voice of America, the senior news broadcaster in the English language division, a fan of the man and his marvelous impact on the world beyond our shores. He remains the single most important broadcaster in the 65 years VOA has been on the air.

Saturday night's concert is a small down payment on what America owes Willis. I'm glad to report that Harry Schnipper promised there will be a 2nd annual Willis Conover Memorial Concert next April. As we used to say in radio, stay tuned.

John Birchard

To read a Rifftides posting about Conover, go here. You may search the archive (link in the right-hand column) with the keyword "Conover" and find several additional items.

May 1, 2007 1:06 AM | | Comments (1)

A Rifftides reader chided me for not writing more often about cycling. My thought is that anyone's cycling experiences are intensely interesting to himself and that everyone he tells about them will be bored.

However, since I have a new road bike,Biranchi%20Vigorelli%202.jpg I don't mind telling you that I took it out for a ride before supper. It made little sense to ride in a high wind, but sense and road cycling frequently part company. The manufacturer's sales blurb for the bike claims:

This great roadster boasts Mavic's Ksyrium Equipe wheels, too, which cheat the wind for free speed and are built to last.

I could have used a little more of Mavic's wind cheating. I was cranking uphill against a 25-mile-an-hour west wind that became a north wind and stayed in my face when I turned at the intersection of two orchard country roads at the top of a steep hill. The hill sweeps down for half a mile to the valley floor. Fighting the gale, but with gravity on my side, I pedaled furiously down and gave a banshee whoop when, in spite of Aeolus's interference, the speedometer registered 36 miles an hour. As I coasted to a hesitation for the four-way stop at the next intersection, a man pulled up beside me in a pickup truck and yelled with some heat, "What are you, nuts?"

I grinned. Then he shrugged and grinned, too, and we went on our ways.

May 1, 2007 1:05 AM | | Comments (1)

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the main category from May 2007.

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About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
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