|SONDHEIM AND JAZZ
Stephen Sondheim and jazz are not usually mentioned in the same sentence. While Sondheim has been Broadway’s most famous composer of
the past 50 years, most of his songs are very much part of plays and either do not lend themselves to much improvising or do not stand apart
from the productions that well.
At a two-part concert at Disney Hall, the performers did their best to prove the opposite, at least during the first half. At an elaborate and well-
thought out set, pianists Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes, Steve Wilson (on alto, flute and soprano), bassist Sean Smith and drummer Matt
Wilson were joined by four violins, two violas and two cellos. Anne Hampton Callaway was scheduled to sing half of the songs but a throat
ailment resulted in her having to cancel; her replacement was her sister Liz Callaway. Since Liz is more of a cabaret singer than a jazz vocalist,
part of the purpose of the set was lost although she did a fine job and displayed a beautiful voice.
Charlap, Rosnes and Wilson had their features as did Callaway with the highlights including “Not While I’m Around,” “The Ladies Who
Lunch,” “Uptown, Downtown” and “Anyone Can Whistle.” Even those listeners who were not familiar with Sondheim were able to enjoy this
friendly, varied and very musical set.
The second half of the program actually did not feature any Sondheim other than one song. While Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Leonard
Bernstein’s music for West Side Story, Dave Grusin’s classic interpretation of the score (which resulted in a 1997 CD for the GRP label) was
mostly comprised of instrumentals. The Disney Hall version was a bit cut down in the number of songs and the size of the ensemble (which no
longer had a string section).
The 19-piece orchestra featured such notables as trumpeter Chuck Findley, trombonists Andy Martin and Bob McChesney, tenor-saxophonist
Tom Scott, altoist Dan Higgins and drummer Dave Weckl. Gene Cipriano, who was on the original West Side Story soundtrack from the late
1950s, was on baritone while John Beasley, a major asset in revising the arrangements, was on synth. Guitarist Lee Ritenour was showcased
on two of the numbers. Heard after the colorful “Prologue” were such numbers as “Something’s Coming,” “One Hand, One Heart,” “Cool” and
“I Feel Pretty” (taken as a duet by Grusin and Sal Lozano on flute). Dorian Holley had a very expressive guest vocal on “Maria.”
Dave Grusin, who is now 82, was in excellent form on piano and clearly enjoyed bringing back his 20-year old arrangements.
THREE RECENT JAZZ BOOKS
To record collectors, Bob Porter is a familiar name for he has produced more than 175 albums along with hundreds of reissues. Since Porter has
often concentrated on soul jazz featuring organists and funky pianists, it is not surprising that his first book is called Soul Jazz (published by
Xlibris and available from www.amazon.com). What is surprising is that he does not even discuss soul jazz until the book is at its halfway
The subtitle of the book, “Jazz In the Black Community 1945-1975,” is a more accurate description for what it contains. Sticking to African-
American musicians, Porter covers the big bands that survived the Swing era (including those of Buddy Johnson, Tiny Bradshaw and Lucky
Millinder), the rise of r&b and its many honking saxophonists, and the beginnings of rock and roll and its connection to swing and r&b. Porter
eventually gets around to soul jazz, concluding the book with funk & fusion. Along the way there are full chapters on Illinois Jacquet, Gene
Ammons, Hank Crawford, Grant Green and Grover Washington Jr.
Bob Porter clearly loves the music that he covers in this book and there are occasional memorable tidbits such as his designation as 1951 as the
year that soul jazz was born on records (even though it did not receive its name until 1959) with the first Wild Bill Davis recordings. He tends
to measure an artist and their record’s success by the sales figures and includes a lot of interesting information in a coherent summary of 30
years of black music.
One hopes that eventually Bob Porter will be inspired to write his musical memoirs so one can learn about the sessions that he was involved
with. For now, Soul Jazz is quite readable.
San Francisco Jazz by Medea Isphording Bern is a breezy and lively history of aspects of the jazz scene that took place in San Francisco. The
emphasis is generally on trad jazz including full chapters on Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band and Turk Murphy although West Coast cool
jazz, Dave Brubeck and a variety of San Francisco’s jazz clubs are also covered along with the legendary Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society of
Pete Douglas. Actually, while the narrative is fine if a bit selective, it is the photos that make this a book well worth picking up. Issued as part
of Arcadia Publishing’s Images Of America (available from www.arcadiapublishing.com), this work has many rare photographs along with a
few more common ones. From Kid Ory to John Handy, Barbara Dane to McCoy Tyner plus many forgotten local musicians, San Francisco Jazz
always holds one’s interest.
Every jazz musician who has been around awhile has his or her stories to tell, and most should be extensively interviewed and profiled in a
biography before the tales are lost forever. John Von Ohlen is best known as the drummer-leader with the Blue Wisp Big Band and for having
long been an important musical force in Cincinnati. When his friend Jim Nunn heard many of his stories, he decided that a book needed to be
written, so he wrote and published it himself.
It’s Gotta Swing is the result of many conversations with Von Ohlen about his life and career. Written in the third person (the drummer is
rarely quoted directly), the book does an excellent job of covering his musical legacy. John Von Ohlen was encouraged by his father from an
early age to pursue music. He gained experience playing with Ralph Marterie, during his Army service, and in stints with Billy Maxted,
Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. After quite a bit of touring, he permanently settled in Cincinnati where he worked with guitarists Cal
Collins and Kenny Poole, formed the Blue Wisp Big Band, and had a long-time association with Rosemary Clooney. It’s Gotta Swing also covers
Von Ohlen’s spiritual life, inspired by Sivaya Subramuniyaswami with whom he visited India, Asia and Europe on two occasions.
The 107-page book is well-written and goes by quickly. It is easily recommended and available by writing Jim Nunn at email@example.com.
THE COMEBACK OF THE LP
When the CD came to prominence during the mid-to-late 1980s, the Lp seemed doomed. By the mid-1990s, virtually no one was producing Lps
and short-sighted collectors were unloading their albums, replacing much of the music on CDs. But during the past ten years, the Lp has made
an unlikely comeback, with sales in 2015 being the highest since 1988. It still only accounts for a small percentage of music sales but it has
been growing every year. It is as if 78s had made a comeback in the 1980s, 30 years after it was given up for dead.
While many debate over the sound quality of Lps vs. CDs (while downloads often seem like the modern-day equivalent of listening to a
transistor radio), the Lp has a few advantages. One can read its liner notes without a magnifying glass, many covers can qualify as art and,
unlike CDs, the average person cannot make an Lp on their own computer. Of course one might get worn out having to stand up and turn over
the record every 20 minutes, but sacrifices have to be made!
Five interesting recently released Lps are covered in this piece. The great British tenor-saxophonist Tubby Hayes is featured with his quintet
on Modes and Blues (available from www.gearboxrecords.com). The previously unreleased 34-minute performance from Feb. 8, 1964 is of a
single original that combines chord patterns based on “Impressions” with an occasional blues chorus. Hayes, trumpeter Jimmy Deuchar,
pianist Terry Shannon, bassist Freddy Logan and drummer Allan Ganley really stretch out. Hayes’ tenor solo comprises all of side one while
Deuchar and Shannon are featured on the second side. The music is forward-looking hard bop, inspired a bit by John Coltrane although tied to
Hayes’ roots in straight ahead jazz. The momentum never slows down during this stirring performance.
Concord (www.concordmusicgroup.com), in their new Top Shelf Series, has recently made available two Lps originally released for Prestige
and produced by Bob Porter. Charles Kynard’s Afro-Disiac and Rusty Bryant’s Fire Eater have not been in-print for quite a few years and are
excellent examples of 1970-71 soul jazz.
Organist Kynard (1933-79), is joined by tenor-saxophonist Houston Person, guitarist Grant Green, electric bassist Jimmy Lewis and drummer
Pretty Purdie. The four songs by Richard Fritz and the two obscurities feature the quintet performing blues, funk jams and ballads with equal
skill. The bass lines are danceable, the organist plays his conception of the Jimmy Smith tradition, and Person and Green get their spots. Their
music is happily dated yet timeless.
Tenor-saxophonist Rusty Bryant (1929-91) had a long career that ranged from jump bands and r&b in the 1950s, to a long period based in
Columbus, Ohio and a comeback in the soul jazz field. Fire Eater teams him with either Bill Mason or Leon Spencer Jr. on organ, guitarist
Wilbert Longmire and drummer Idris Muhammad. Bryant puts plenty of feeling into each passionate note although his organists (particularly
Spencer) often steal solo honors. The music is quite fun and infectious.
Paul Butterfield (1942-87) was a significant harmonica player and singer who helped revitalize the blues in the late 1960s. The most famous
version of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had both Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitars. The slightly later version of the group
featured on the two-Lp set Live New York 1970 was an octet with four horns, including the young altoist David Sanborn. Recorded live at the
Troubadour, the music ranges from blues to rock with Butterfield’s vocals and harmonica playing being dominant although Sanborn has a few
short solos. While I wish that this reissue contained more Chicago blues, Butterfield and his group give a bluesy feeling to each of the nine
songs. Highlights include “Born Under A Bad Sign,” a lengthy “Driftin’ Blues,” “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “Love March.” This
release is available from www.mvdb2b.com.
The final Lp is a newly recorded set of unaccompanied guitar solos by Ross Hammond, Follow Your Heart. While probably best known for his
avant-garde explorations, leading a quartet that included Vinny Golia, and for his work with small groups, Hammond sounds a bit different on
Follow Your Heart. His thoughtful playing on his acoustic guitar is closer to country blues (without necessarily utilizing blues chord changes)
than to free jazz. He takes his time during his relaxed solos, embraces melodies, and yet is never predictable. Such songs as “Whirlpool,” “Lake
Tahoe Waltz,” Life In 3D” and “How Does A Monkey Write Its Song” are among the highpoints of this thought-provoking set, available from