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In the groove with Dennis Coffey

denniscoffey1_courtesy-of-clarence-avant---interior-music-corpDennis Coffey is still playing Tuesday nights at a Detroit club called the Northern Lights Lounge. It’s what he and his 1963 Gibson Birdland have been doing for the best part of 50 years. He started making a local reputation as a session man in the mid-’60s when he played on Darrell Banks’s “Open the Door to Your Heart” and the classic sides on the Golden World label by J. J. Barnes and others. Later in the decade he was absorbed into the Motown studio band, adding the rock-influenced sounds of a wah-wah pedal and a fuzz box to the more classic approaches of the established Hitsville USA guitarists: Robert White, Eddie Willis and Joe Messina.

It was Coffey who played on Norman Whitfield’s psych-soul productions, like the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion” and Edwin Starr’s “War”, as the Motown Sound updated itself to suit a new era. He had his own hit, the funky instrumental “Scorpio”, which highlighted his interest in effects. But he was still playing in the clubs, as we can hear from the rather wonderful product of the latest piece of successful treasure-hunting among previously unknown tapes by the Resonance label: an album titled Hot Coffee in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, recorded in 1968 with a trio completed by the Hammond organist Lyman Woodard and the drummer Melvin Davis.

Woodard and Davis were musicians with local reputations. The organist went on the road with Martha and the the Vandellas as their musical director. The drummer also toured with Vandellas, and with the Temptations. Like many of the members of the Funk Brothers, they could also be found in the night spots, entertaining their predominantly black listeners with a style of jazz that was heavy on the groove and on the feeling of the blues.

So what we have here is just under an hour of what you’d have heard if you’d wandered into this particular club in 1968: a brand of social music mixing jazz, funk and R&B, completely devoid of pretension, being delivered by highly sophisticated players with a wonderful directness and without any hint of strain. This recording features a handful of lively originals, ultra-cool instrumental versions of Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” and Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, and a nice reading of Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. The rhythms are deep in the pocket and the solos aren’t about showing off.

Whenever you’re lucky enough to find yourself in such an environment, you  know that no boundaries are being stretched and no rules are being rewritten. But it doesn’t matter. There are truths in this kind of music that are no less valuable for being relatively simple. And while it’s happening you want it to go on for ever.

* The photograph of Dennis Coffey is from the booklet accompanying Hot Coffey in the D, which includes valuable interviews and background material.

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January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

Little Jimmy & Little Joe

jimmy-scott-joe-pesciWhen the great ballad singer Jimmy Scott returned to action in the early ’90s, in a rediscovery primed by appearances on Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss and in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the surge of interest resulted in his recordings becoming widely available. They ranged from carefully curated collections of his work for Decca and Savoy in the 1950s (when he was known as Little Jimmy Scott) to new albums produced for Sire and Milestone by Tommy LiPuma, Mitchell Froom, Todd Barkan and others. There was also, finally, the reappearance of two legendary albums from the 1960s suppressed when Herman Lubinsky, the notoriously vindictive owner of Savoy, claimed that Scott had recorded them in breach of an existing contract: Falling in Love is Wonderful, produced in 1962 by Ray Charles for his own Tangerine label, and The Source, supervised by Joel Dorn for Atlantic in 1969.

Lubinsky’s action cost the singer what should have been the prime years of his career, but we were lucky to have him for the last 20 years of his life, until his death in 2014 at the age of 88. In that final phase, hardly surprisingly, his pipes were not what they had once been, but it wasn’t mawkish to feel that the signs of ageing added an extra poignancy to his interpretations. His marvellous phrasing was certainly unimpaired, and the wide vibrato still touched the heart.

Now, three years after his death, comes an album called I Go Back Home, the fruit of his final recording sessions, held in 2009, in which the German producer Ralf Kemper surrounded him with sympathetic musicians, arrangements, and guests. Sometimes, as in “Poor Butterfly”, Scott speaks the lyric, allowing the French harmonica player Grégoire Maret to add melodic decoration. Elsewhere, as on “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “How Deep is the Ocean”, his singing has a surprising strength. There are duets with Dee Dee Bridgewater on “For Once in My Life”, with Oscar Castro Neves on “Love Letters”, and with Renee Olstead on “Someone to Watch over Me”. There are tracks featuring other distinguished instrumentalists: the pianist Kenny Barron, the organist Joey DeFrancesco, the tenorist James Moody, and the trumpeter Till Brönner (who displays a delicate lyricism on “If I Ever Lost You”). There are gentle and wholly appropriate string and woodwind arrangements by Mark Joggerst. There is a beautifully warm and clear mix by Phil Ramone.

The big surprise, however, comes in one of the two songs that do not feature Scott at all but are billed as “tributes” by other singers. It’s a version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, the Kern/Hammerstein song that Scott recorded — featuring the seldom-sung introduction — during a 1972 Dorn-produced session which remained unheard until the release of a Rhino/Atlantic album titled Lost and Found in 1993. But this time the singer, paying tribute to his old friend and influence, is the actor Joe Pesci.

We know that Pesci grew up in New Jersey alongside Frankie Valli, and that he had early ambitions as a singer. In 1968 he released an album under the name Joe Ritchie titled Little Joe Sure Can Sing! on the Brunswick label, produced by Artie Schroeck (who arranged Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”), featuring covers of things like the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody”. When it didn’t make waves he switched first to stand-up comedy and then to an acting career that took him to the heights of Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino.

His dead-slow version of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” — one of my very favourite ballads — is good enough to make you wonder what might have happened had he stuck with the singing thing. His delivery is very much in Scott’s pleading high-tenor register, with subtle echoes of that distinctive vibrato, and occasional manipulations of timbre that seemed to echo the muted-trumpet obligato provided on the track by DeFrancesco, switching to his second instrument. Joggerst’s arrangement exudes a glowing serenity, particularly when the rhythm section lays out for a rubato statement of the six-bar bridge before Barron’s piano, the bass of Michael Valerio and Peter Erskine’s brushes pick it up for the final 12 bars.

I never thought I’d hear a treatment of this song to rival the enchanting version recorded by Peggy Lee with Nelson Riddle in 1957. This one does. I’ve been playing it for friends, without divulging the identity of the singer. They’ve all been amazed.

Pesci also appears in a duet with Scott on “The Nearness of You”, and if you’re only half-listening you might not even notice where one begins and the other ends. So that’s an unexpected reason for investigating I Go Back Home, which stitches the final notes of a fabulously gifted and original singer, one matched as an interpreter of torch songs only by Billie Holiday and Shirley Horn, with tender care into a loving hour-long tapestry of sound.

* The photograph of Joe Pesci and Jimmy Scott together in the studio is from the booklet accompanying I Go Back Home, which is released on January 27 on the Eden River label.

Winter in America

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Darcy James Argue introduces Secret Society during the 2017 Winter Jazzfest in New York

“Welcome to the resistance,” Darcy James Argue said on Friday night to the packed audience at Subculture, a basement club on Bleecker Street. Then the Canadian-born, New York-based composer and bandleader  turned to his 18-piece ensemble, Secret Society, and, with deft flicks of his wrists, guided them into the opening of Real Enemies, his cycle of pieces based on the theme of state-sponsored paranoia. A few hours earlier, in another part of New York City, Donald Trump had been forced to listen to the representatives of the CIA and the FBI presenting evidence that Russia’s government and secret services had helped to get him elected as president of the United States.

“Social justice” was the theme of the event in which Argue was participating: the 2017 edition of Winter Jazzfest, the annual showcase featuring a two-day marathon of more than 150 groups at about a dozen venues centred on Greenwich Village. Different bandleaders expressed their attitude to the topic in different ways. The pianist and composer Samora Pinderhughes led his 11 musicians through an extended piece titled The Transformations Suite, a profoundly moving contemporary take on themes no less relevant than when they were explored half a century ago in Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. The Indian-American singer and harmonium player Amirtha Kidambi performed a piece inspired by the death of Eric Garner at the hands of NYPD officers in 2014; she announced that all proceeds from that night’s sales of the new CD by her quartet, Elder Ones, would go to the fund supporting four members of the NAACP arrested earlier in the week for protesting against Trump’s nomination for attorney general of a man who has campaigned against voting rights. The trumpeter Peter Evans called for the recognition of musicians — he gave Matana Roberts as an example — who have a record of campaigning on these issues.

Others preferred to let the music speak for itself, but there was never any doubt of the continuing role that jazz musicians have to play in exposing issues, raising consciousness, and maintaining morale in difficult times. Their inherent independence of spirit, their understanding of the need to reconcile individual and collective action, their roots in an idiom that came from suffering and exploitation, and their acceptance of the need to fight against the commercial odds make them ideally suited to the task.

To get back to the music, Argue is a young man with an intriguing approach both to personal style (he looks as though he might relax at the weekend by putting on a cravat) and to finding new solutions to the problems inherent in playing jazz with a large ensemble. Throughout the performance of Real Enemies, he used a tablet to trigger sound bites from such people as Oliver North and Dick Cheney. With Ingrid Jensen among the trumpeters and Chris Speed among the reeds, the writing contained echoes of Elmer Bernstein, Bob Graettinger and Gil Evans: lots of drama, lots of complexity, lots of variety (particularly in the instrumental colours: a grouping of piccolo, flute, two clarinets and a bass clarinet, for instance, or a trumpet lead supported by four flugelhorns). It would be an important and pathfinding work at any time, never mind now.

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From left: Vuyo Sotashe, Jules Latimer, Jeremie Harris, Elena Pinderhughes, Clovis Nicolas, Lucas Pino, Riley Mulherker, Braxton Cook and Tony Lustig perform The Transformations Suite

Pinderhughes’ The Transformations Suite did not enjoy the same degree of attention when the recorded version came out last year, but it made a deep impression in the New School’s Glass Box space late on Friday night. There was nothing ironic here: the wounds of 400 years of slavery and its aftermath were allowed to bleed openly in the poems and lyrics delivered by the actor Jeremie Harris (who wrote some of the words), the wonderfully soulful South African-born singer Vuyo Solashe, and most of all by Jules Latimer, a young Juilliard drama student who took the considerable risk of acting out grief and fear without restraint. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” occasionally popped up as a leitmotif, and Pinderhughes’ lean but succulent writing for his five-piece horn section provided a platform for improvisations by his extravagantly talented 21-year-old sister Elena, who might just be on her way to becoming the finest flautist jazz has produced, the tenorist Lucas Pino, and Braxton Cook, who took the roof off the place with a roaring alto solo.

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MONK’estra with John Beasley at the piano, James Genus on bass and Greg Tardy on tenor

John Beasley’s MONK’estra performed their empathetic, swinging and sometimes hiphop-tinged revisions of Thelonious Monk tunes at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Lincoln Centre on Thursday night, in front of a window with a view of Trump Tower. Luckily the arrangements and the solos — notably by the always creative tenorist Greg Tardy, the trombonists Frank Lacy and Conrad Herwig, and a guest from France, the fine harmonica player Grégoire Maret — were more than enough to divert attention away from the new epicentre of American values. And, as Beasley reminded us, Monk himself had grown up literally only a stone’s throw away, on West 63rd Street.

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Mary Halvorson (left) with Jonathan Finlayson, Jon Irabagon, Ingrid Laubrock and Jacob Garchik at the New School

As impressive as anything I heard during three crowded days was the octet led by the guitarist Mary Halvorson, which features not just a bunch of great players (including the trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and the tenorist Ingrid Laubrock) but the leader’s extraordinary interplay with the pedal steel player Susan Alcom, which elevates the music to a whole different realm of texture and emotion. Halvorson’s compositions are fascinating enough in any case: sounding as though they are through-written, they have the impact of great short stories, full of surprising twists of plot and mood, never quite ending where you expect but always resolving brilliantly.

While the festival was taking place, the great jazz critic Nat Hentoff died in New York at the age of 91. Through his liner notes, his pieces for Down Beat, the Jazz Review and the Village Voice, and books such as Hear Me Talkin’ To You (co-authored with Nat Shapiro) and Jazz Is, he helped shaped the view of several generations of listeners. He was also a lifelong fighter for social justice. And in 1960, for his own short-lived label (which released classic albums by Charles Mingus and Booker Little), he produced Cecil Taylor’s sublime trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine”, which alone would earn him a place wherever the good ones go.

* All the music mentioned above is out now on CD. Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies is on the New Amsterdam label. Samora Pinderhughes’ The Transformation Suite is on Gray Area. John Beasley’s MONK’estra Vol. 1 is on Mack Avenue. The Mary Halvorson Octet’s Away With You is on Firehouse 12. “This Nearly Was Mine” is on The World of Cecil Taylor, on the Candid label.