Jazz Discs

Moonlight in Vermont ***** An astounding album! Johnny Smith’s Moonlight in Vermont is one of the most influential guitar classics of all time and many prominent guitarists such as Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, and Jimmy Bruno sang Johnny’s praises. Charlie Parker was also rumored to be a huge fan. Because of its high level of musicality and the emotional romance music of the period contained, the disc is still a classic and a really good listen. The material was actually a compilation drawn from 2 10-inch discs that Johnny had recorded while at NBC during the early 1950s. The song, Moonlight in Vermont was jazz magazine’s Downbeat #2 song of the year (in 1952). The album Moonlight… was released in 1956 and Smith picked his band from a group of fellers he met while was on staff at NBC. This group included the incomparable saxophone superstar Stan Getz, who is the perfect foil for Smith on this album as the two of them drive each other to thrilling and precipitous heights on several cuts. It’s easy to imagine that in lesser hands what is attempted would fall apart spectacularly, but they both had a level of mastery that enabled them to play cleanly, clearly, and quickly no matter the tempo or difficulty of the musical passages; the reason many of the performances on the disc are flat-out breathtaking, even by today’s standards.

Many reviews of Moonlight in Vermont allude to Smith’s chord melody style having the quality of a piano and his single line playing recalling the great saxophone lines of someone like Lester Young, and this is true. He also had a pure, very crystalline tone delivered either on an Epiphone or Guild archtop and there is at times a very distinct Western Swing vibe and a nod or three to the great Chet Atkins. Throughout the album there is a very Lush Musicality, that is well supported by the great rhythm section and piano players that appear on the disc. Moonlight in Vermont includes the original composition Jaguar with Smith and Getz playing the dual lead head and middle passages at breakneck tempo. Then there is the Caravan-esque Tabu with its bebop harmonies and dark guitar tone…also a dual lead by Smith and Getz. Smith’s picking is clean and forceful and he has said he imagined that he would have to execute lines in the same smooth fashion as a violin player (going from a bottom note all the way to the top in one crescendo movement). The breakdown middle during the solo choruses of Tabu illustrates this very well with both players blowing out a flurry of notes. The best ballads: Tenderly, Stars Fell on Alabama, I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance, and the title cut all feature Johnny’s beautiful chord melody (tight-closed voice) playing that he pulls off with the harmonic and melodic sense of a classical/jazz pianist. At other times, the sound of Johnny’s guitar almost approaches that of a pedal steel and that tone adds an extra level of sweetness, ambiance, and emotionalism to the tunes and juxtaposes very nicely with Getz’s very throaty, resonant sax solos. Sometimes it also sounds like Hawaiian slack key slide guitar as on the bouncy Vilia and I’ll Be Around. Then there are the tunes that are completely early 50s bop: Cherokee, Nice Work If You Can Get It, and Cavu. All in all it’s a perfectly balanced listening experience and though it serves as such, it is much more than just a very inspired guitar study. Trust me when I say that if you throw it on the next time you want to set a romantic mood, you won’t be sorry!

Soft Guitars ***1/2 The Al Caiola (w/Don Arnone) Soft Guitars disc is another lush and very swanky jazz affair released in 1961. Both Caiola and Arnone were well-regarded studio musicians in New York in the 1950s, so obviously this is top-level, well-arranged music, very typical of the Cool Jazz/Space Age pop/Bachelor-Pad style of music of the time; lots of playful sounds, swinging guitars, bongos, vibes, bells, whistles, sound effects, and album covers with hot babes. This album was originally part of a two-LP set called Great Pickin’ and Soft Guitars and then was a 2 LP on 1 CD set and somewhere along the line the set was split. It is a marvelous snapshot or earshot, if you will, of a time in music that is long gone, yet recalls the exuberance, optimism, and class of the pre-rock era. People like me, who came of age during the 60s and 70s still heard this type of music and this type of musician all of the time on television and in the movies.

There is a well-arranged duet style that permeates the record and given that both of these guys were first call session guitarists, I’m sure they came to this kind of arranging naturally. There isn’t a whole lot of wild improvisation or flashy stuff; they keep it to some great instrumental jazz/popular music of the time, played exceptionally well. They cover Stella by Starlight, Try a Little Tenderness, The Sound of Music and More Than You Know. Leading off the album is their take on They Can’t Take That Away From Me, a song that was later associated with jazz guitar titans Ted Greene and Martin Taylor. Since this album was recorded way back in 1961, I would say Al and Don got there first! In addition to other jumpin’, jivin’ tunes like S’ Wonderful and S’Nice they do a great take on Imagination, the old jazz warhorse I Can’t Get Started, and Clair de Lune as Debussy might’ve imagined it. I wrote about Debussy and the complicated history of Clair de Lune here and was very surprised to find it on an album like this. Because both guitarists are obviously playing electric (archtop) guitars their version has a much different, trebly, ringing quality that one doesn’t hear when the piece is performed classically as it usually is. But I enjoy the very ethereal and dreamy feel that is augmented with beautiful harp accompaniment from Gloria Agostini. Though this isn’t the genre-defining album that Moonlight in Vermont was and is, it is still a great listening experience.

Matador ***** My favorite Grant Green disc because it be so bluesy and funky! Also it has a tremendous virtuosity and wide panorama of sound thanks to Green’s support band, which was half of John Coltrane’s classic band: pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Bob Cranshaw, and drummer Elvin Jones. Unbelievably, this disc, though recorded in the mid-60s wasn’t released until 1978 and it’s hard to understand why. Though Green released a ton of great albums throughout his career, this is universally regarded as one of his very finest.

Because of the high caliber of players involved they can get away with this 5 cut album (where every track is 9+ minutes). The jamming is excellent! Green’s clear and modal blues lines contrast with Tyner’s orchestral, almost symphonic harmonic backing and cleverly inventive soloing. The rhythm section has the finest quality of jazz push that roils and rolls and pushes the soloists ever higher on each successive chorus. The group takes on My Favorite Things, which, though it doesn’t have the boundary-pushing revelations of the Coltrane version, never gets boring over the ten minutes the group devotes to it. The solos build amazingly and because the group never steps that far out, their version is very accessible. Green’s two originals on the disc, Green Jeans and Matador, are brilliant guitar riff-driven numbers that take biscuits and grits uptown. While there is undeniably a jazzy sophistication to these tunes, the blues underpins it all and that is really what makes Green’s style work so well. The final cut on the original album, Bedouin is a Duke Pearson cover that has an Oriental/Middle Eastern vibe, which the group effortlessly spins through for almost 12 wonderful minutes. On the edition I have there is a bonus cut of Burt Bacharach’s Wives and Lovers, which lightens the mood considerably and is a fun little tune that the group playfully riffs through to close out the album. Call it Hard Bop or Jazz Blues or whatever…this is a very great and underrated album.

Green Street **** My second favorite Grant Green disc because it is Grant’s first great release as a bandleader and Green Street finds him playing in a power trio format with bassist Ben Tucker and drummer Dave Bailey. This sparse line-up allows for Grant to really stretch out with his very distinctive riffing and soloing, but it also presents an opportunity to hear his very bluesy comping that is completely nonexistent on releases such as Matador. Though Green and Co. are toying with Hard Bop, the disc has all of the very best underpinnings of blues and r n’ b where even the (usually) staid ballad Alone Together, clips along like an early Soul number.

The other cover on this album, ‘Round About Midnight is approached with as much solemnity as you will find in Green’s playing. He strips away all technique and plays a very melodic and emotional take backed up by very sparse accompaniment from the rhythm section. His originals, No. 1 Green Street, Grant’s Dimensions, and Green with Envy, have all of the best GG modal blues articulation and invention. This album serves as a great introduction to Green and where he would go over the next 10 years on the Blue Note label.

Idle Moments **** This disc is usually one of the tip-top rated Grant Green discs, and yes that is true and I do like it for the full realization of Grant going all Hard Bop, I have never liked the 15 minute title track. Because of confusion over the structure of this track it actually ended up being much longer than it should’ve been and while I know I’m in the minority, I usually skip over it.

The other cuts are fantastic: Duke Pearson’s Nomad, John Lewis’s Django, a tribute to Mr. Reinhardt and the Green original Jean De Fleur are all great cuts that illustrate Green’s ability to lead a bigger unit chock full of fantastic players and still eme rge as the star. He’s accompanied on this disc by the aforementioned Pearson on piano, jazz titan Joe Henderson on tenor sax, Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone and the rhythm section of bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Al Harewood who had worked with Green on previous albums. This is a tight and brassy record and it’s a shame there wasn’t less of Idle Moments and more of something else.

Yesterday ***1/2 Barney Kessel was one of jazz guitar’s most illustrious pioneers. His career spanned the gamut of the golden age of showbiz with stints in Chico Marx’s band, Oscar Peterson’s trio, and his own early trio that also featured bassist Ray Brown and Shelly Manne on drums. A prolific session player, he was also a member of The Wrecking Crew. This album, Yesterday, while maybe not his most accessible or highest rated, is a disc I like a lot and have played repeatedly over the years. It is live from Barney’s appearance at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival and over the course of 8 songs with different musicians sitting in Barney demonstrates his complete mastery of the guitar and jazz/pop form.

He plays two unaccompanied pieces, an original In the Garden of Love and a cover of The Beatles Yesterday. It is on these two songs, plus the unaccompanied introduction to Johnny Mercer’s Laura that Kessel’s brilliance really shines through. His command of chords and inversions mixed with melodic lines and runs is in a league all it’s own. I really love his version of Yesterday…way cool, very dramatic. He also does great versions of It’s a Blue World Summertime, the very rowdy Old Devil Moon and an original Bridging the Blues before being joined by the one and only Stephane Grappelli for a rousing finale of Tea for Two. Even though Barney was no longer a youngster when this album was recorded, the performances and wild enthusiastic response from the audience prove that he had reached a level of maturity that was heavy enough to move people with great ballad playing and still ballsy enough to drive through up tempo swing and blues tunes. There is great audience response to this performance, which I believe took place in early July. That Barney and his band were able to drive the Montreaux audience sweaty is not surprising given the energy level on the disc.

Blues Guitar ***1/2 I was in the mood to swing and I found this very mysterious album by one of my favorite jazz guitar players, the incomparable Barney Kessel. I wrote about Barney here and here and he is actually one of the more popular search terms to get to this blog. It’s great to know that there are a lot of Barney fans out there because he was one of the greatest guitar pickers that ever was. This album, Blues Guitar, is an odd one, for sure. Not one of the more well-known Barney offerings, it also has an interesting selection of songs: How High the Moon, Willow Weep for Me, Honeysuckle Rose, Out of Nowhere, Blue Moon, Limehouse Blues, and It Don’t Mean a Thing(If it Ain’t Got Swing) are all great swing standards and they feature the great Stephane Grappelli. Who knew these guys recorded together? Not me that’s for sure. Of course if you’re a Django Reinhardt fan like I am, you know Grappelli after about 3 notes and he brings his usual je ne sais quoi to the sessions. Barney is on fire as usual with this fleet-fingered chord melody and snaky, inventive single string lines. When he and Stephane trade-off on many choruses there are some totally frenetic and kinetic fireworks to be heard. Rockin’!! I mean Swingin’!! I also like the texture songs, Aquarius and Burt Bacharach‘s The Look of Love. What is very interesting is that a very small part of Barney’s guitar from this tune was sampled for a hip-hop track, The Look of Love, by Slum Village. Because of the exposure this group gave the song, Barney’s version is a thing with young guitar players who have learned the sample. Pretty cool if you ask me and good lookin’ out on Slum Village for sampling a class act and great guitarist!

Live in Paris 1965 ***** The quintessential live Wes Montgomery with an amazing support band that completely tears the roof off of 1965. I used to have the Live in ’65 DVD that had performances of Wes with this band: the great Harold Mabern on piano, Arthur Harper on bass and Jimmy Lovelace on drums and it was totally killer. Some of the same tunes (that have long been among my Wes faves) Jingles, Here’s That Rainy Day, and Four on Six are on both packages. They were a pleasure to watch then and they’re still a pleasure to listen to now! The kinetic and absolute virtuosity of the whole band makes for one of the most furious and fiery live jazz performances ever captured.

Of course the guitar of Wes Montgomery is the star of the show and his fantastic use of single lines, octaves, and block chord playing combined with his harmonic inventiveness plus balls-to-the-wall energy demonstrate why he should be a guitarist that everyone has heard. The band is joined by Johnny Griffin on sax for a few numbers and this adds an even greater dimension of Bop sound and energy to the set. Montgomery’s articulation and power throughout are amazing considering he is playing with his thumb. Since this was recorded on his only tour of Europe it seems he may have gone over there hungry to prove how good he was. I think he also was very happy with the band and that was a feeling that was surely reciprocated. This disc is a great testament to one of Montgomery’s finest years! There are many clips of this tour on YouTube and they are all worth a watch!

The Original Guitar Hero ***1/2 This disc features the illustrious Charlie Christian playing with the Benny Goodman Sextet and while it isn’t the definitive retrospective, it still has some of Christian’s most enduring performances, including Seven Come Eleven, Airmail Special, Flying Home, Wholly Cats, and Benny’s Bugle. The sound is really good quality considering the era that it was recorded and it certainly shows Christian in the best light. It’s easy to hear from these performances why he was such an influential player and how much later players would draw from his very limited discography.

This disc is criticized for being a rip-off in that it was originally supposed to function as a sampler of a more comprehensive box set (a fact I wasn’t aware of when I bought it). I get those criticisms, yet I have to admit I have a hard time listening to a whole lot of CC only because most of his recorded work is late 30s big band which gets old for me after about 20 minutes. I really do like the performances I listed above but some of the other tunes are “eh?” to me and not because of Charlie. It’s a complete shame he died so young because he certainly had a whole lot more to offer the world of music.

Kind of Blue ***** The greatest, most popular, and most influential jazz disc by any measure, Kind of Blue, is more of a cultural institution that an album at this point. Part of the reason for it’s success that sometimes gets overlooked is that it was one of the best jazz units ever assembled: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. Though there is no guitar to be found on this record it was hugely influential in the jazz and rock spheres and has long been a hit with the public because it is so accessible. Because of the high caliber of the players, the multi-textured sound and Davis’s love for a romantic vocal edge to his playing, no one confused this album with jazz that was trying to be too clever even though the whole album revolves around the idea of playing modes rather than through a series of chord changes. In addition to the fact that Coltrane and Adderly were the best in the business at the time, the MVP for this album would surely have to be pianist Bill Evans, who many believe co-wrote or wrote two of the compositions, Blue in Green and Flamenco Sketches. Even accepting that they were written by Davis, the four tracks that Evans plays on, including the two above and All Blues and So What? have an almost classical sophistication in the underlying harmony, accompaniment and soloing. Listening to just Evans’ parts through this CD will lead one to some amazing revelations about how important he was to the project. But all of the players bring their “A” game and what is even more remarkable is how there was almost no preparation done prior to recording. As he was wont to do, Davis gave the players minimal instructions and off they went. So another huge component of the disc is the high level of musicality in all of the improvisations.

Future rockers, including Duane Allman, would be heavily influenced by the modal solo approaches on Kind of Blue and even though it was an album that Davis conceived as being a total modal project, I believe the “blue” comes from the fact that there is a ton of blues to be found here; Freddie Freeloader and All Blues even employ the standard 12-bar form. Even though So What is just two chords and does not use the blues “form,” it has a very bluesy feel throughout. So though there is no guitar here, it can provide any 6-string listener with some great insights into musical and instrumental possibilities.

Bitches Brew **** Miles changes music again! A whole lot of jazzers and fans of Miles Davis didn’t like this album, but it was the perfect release for 1970 and it completely rejuvenated his career. Once again he had assembled a killer band that included Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Joe Zawinul, and guitar superstar John Mclaughlin. Because of the experimental nature of the album it really sounds like the complete opposite to Kind of Blue. There is much more of a focus on rhythm, sound, and experimentation rather than on harmonic sophistication, blues and accessibility. This was a huge band; 13 people were playing simultaneously on some occasions. I hear at times a 3-level musical construction thing goin’ on: one or two drummers and percussion with one or two basses on the bottom, one or two keys and McLaughlin’s guitar in the middle and Davis and other horns on top. The sound produced was the culmination of Davis’s 60s influences: James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles and other funk and noise maestros. In a way he was almost like Phil Spector, creating this huge wall of a different kind of sound with this album.

There is a cinematic quality to the jams that is reminiscent of many film soundtracks of that era. This differs from Kind of Blue and Miles’ older material because the piano, bass and guitar were all electric (there was acoustic and electric bass) and there were effects like echo and delay applied to some of the horn parts. This was the beginning of jazz-fusion and jazz-rock, which, though it did not sit well with old schoolers and purists, sold to the younger generations. I think parts of this album are a fun listen, but I don’t know that it has ever influenced my playing or music. Spanish Key, Pharoh’s Dance, Sanctuary, and Miles Runs the Voodoo Down are my favorites. I’ve always had trouble with the title cut for some reason. John McLaughlin shines as on accompaniment and as a soloist. He would put this experience to good use and go on to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra shortly after. Bitches Brew brought jazz into the electric age and likewise expanded the landscape and possibilities of what was available to the next generations of musicians.

Getz/Gilberto ***** A watershed, “Best Of…” record on many lists, this album popularized Bossa Nova to the world, solidified the already impressive careers of guitarist/composer/singer João Gilberto, saxophonist Stan Getz and composer/pianist António Carlos Jobim, and made an international star out of Astrud Gilberto. Not only was the album a critical and popular success, but three songs from the album, The Girl From Ipanema, Corcovado, and Desafinado would become jazz/popular standards and would even find their way to Gypsy Jazz canon in the coming decades. Also it became an instant fine-living, travel to far-flung locale, international party hit helping to shrink a world that was already becoming much smaller as the 20th century rolled along. World music? Possibly. How many people have partied, broke bread, danced, strolled, loved, and lost to the sounds of this album? Incalculable, I would think. A innumerate number of good times and broken hearts, but…it’s the way of the world, isn’t it?

João Gilberto’s very unique style for guitar and voice had its origins in Brazil in the late 1950s where he wrote his first bossa-nova song, Bim-Bim. Originally based on the samba, Gilberto’s music eschewed the over-the-top musical elements and instrumentation usually found in that music in favor of quiet, insistent and rhythmically percussive self-accompaniment on an acoustic guitar. This became an instantly recognizable and popular style, especially given the material that Gilberto had to work with. Jobim’s compositions are the purest examples of suave, sophisticated harmony that lends itself to a sparse romantic music and he was involved in writing all but one of the tunes on the album (Para Machucar Meu Coração). Everyone has heard Girl from Ipanema and many have heard Corcovado and Desafinado. The melodies linger long after the songs have ceased playing and all three have a nostalgic reflective tone in addition to their other splendid qualities. The playful Doralice samba and Só Danco Samba instill a groovy dance vibe and Getz’s sax, brings some absolute gorgeous tones as the songs build during his solos, yet the rhythmic center that defines the tunes is never lost.

The first popular album of bossa-nova in the United States was actually performed by Stan Getz and guitarist Charlie Byrd a few years before Getz/Gilberto was recorded and the positive reviews and reactions led to a legendary concert at Carnegie Hall to promote the style. Out of that concert, came this album. I’ve already reviewed another killer album that Stan Getz was a party to — Moonlight in Vermont with the amazing Johnny Smith. People can talk about Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, but Getz may have been the best-sounding (mellifluous) saxophonist who ever put lips to…er mouthpiece. When someone of Coltrane’s caliber describes your sound as, “Let’s face it—we’d all sound like that if we could,” you’re probably doing something right. Getz’s presence on this album is just as important as Moonlight in Vermont and what’s interesting is that both albums are guitar albums. Different kinds of guitar albums in terms of music, style, focus and execution, but it is the guitar that really drives both discs.

The combination of Gilberto’s quiet comping, Jobim’s sparse piano, Getz’s lyrical, very resonant sax and the laid-back rhythm section of Sebastião Neto on bass and Milton Banana on drums was a winner and still makes for a very beautiful sound and album. Astrud Gilberto, who had never sung before, brings a relaxed, very femininely melodic presence to two songs, Girl from Ipanema and Corcovado. On both tunes both Gilbertos sing and Getz plays in the same very lagged, easy manner with subtle adjustments to the melody each time through. There isn’t that much in the way of crazy improvisation; substitutions, speed, volume or drive that one usually hears in jazz or pop soloing, but that helps with the cohesiveness of the album. On Getz/Gilberto all of the songs stand alone, but also reflect beautifully on each other. The continuity is also a result of Gilberto’s guitar style, which is the antithesis of what most later guitar players (and other soloists) would play (or over-play) later when covering these tunes. That is a “thing” and certainly a group like the Rosenberg Trio has taken Jobim material and made it amazing as only they can, but this album is a study in the beauty and effectiveness of restraint and control in music, performance, and emotion and how that can be amazing as well. It produces a sound that instantly puts one drowsy on a languid beach, kissed by the wind and the tang of the ocean, rolling off the quiet swells of the deep blue sea, wrapped in the warm glow of the sun and waiting for the quiet stars of the quiet nights and the moonlight on the mountains…