Tag Archives: Johnny Hodges

Recent Four & Five Star CD Reviews

Harry Allen: New York State of Mind (Challenge Records CR73293)
*****

Never having heard American tenor saxophonist Harry Allen playing with Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello before, I am now desperate to hear them live. This magnificent CD of New York-themed tunes has this duo at its heart; they bounce off each other brilliantly on such uptempo numbers as Singin’ in the Rain’s Broadway Melody. On the ballads, Allen’s tender, breathy and slightly melancholy sax (especially on an exquisite version of Autumn in New York) is complemented by Sportiello’s dreamy, eloquent piano. And there are some sublime contributions from in-demand trombonist John Allred.

Johnny Hodges Quintet: Buenos Aires Blues (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10373)
*****
Even if you’ve long since been smitten with the sublime sound of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, chances are you might not be familiar with the two albums which make up this magnificent CD: the first is a 1963 quintet session with the film composer Lalo Schifrin on piano, while the second is the 1962 strings LP, The Eleventh Hour, which was arranged and conducted by Oliver Nelson. Both are terrific, but the first, which features Hodges’s signature mix of Ellington numbers and his own blues (plus a couple of Schifrin originals), is a particular treat.

Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet: To Fred Astaire With Love (Jazz Lips JL765) *****

This superb CD comprises two joyous, mid-1970s, albums – the eponymous Astaire tribute and The Ruby Braff-George Barnes Quartet – recorded by the terrific group which featured on Tony Bennett’s sublime Rodgers and Hart LP during the same period. The partnership between cornettist Ruby Braff and electric guitarist George Barnes was a great one, characterised by warmth, swing, lyricism and sheer joie de vivre, and their sound was beautifully offset by a rhythm section of just guitar and bass. The 20 tracks are perfect examples of chamber jazz at its best.

Randy Sandke’s Jazz for Juniors (Arbors Records ARCD 19385)
****
Jazz albums for kids are nothing new but this one, which not only entertains but also educates, is something different. The concept of US trumpeter Randy Sandke – whose interest and style span the history of jazz – it tells the story of the formation of a jazz band, as a trumpet-playing tiger travels the world meeting fellow animal instrumentalists (as portrayed, musically, by such top-notch musicians as Ken Peplowski, Howard Alden and Wycliffe Gordon).  Perfectly pitched at young ears, the CD also includes a slide show viewable on PCs.

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Mad About Mulligan

One of the main reasons I pray for a long life for my old cassette recorder is so I can go on reliving, ad infinitum, the first concert hall jazz gig I ever attended. Back in 1988, one of the biggest American stars at the Glasgow International Jazz Festival was Gerry Mulligan, a musician whose powerful, distinctive and lyrical playing immediately won me over and continues to seduce me every time I listen to his records.

I still can’t quite believe my luck in hearing the great baritone saxophonist, composer and bandleader Gerry Mulligan on what was undoubtedly his only visit to Glasgow – and I heard him not once, but twice. (I would have heard all three of his concerts had my dad not decided to be fair and take my brother to his gig with the Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra.) I was so immediately smitten by Mulligan’s muscular baritone sound and charismatic leadership of his Concert Jazz Band that I joined the throngs of long-in-the-tooth fans at the stage door and secured my first-ever jazz autograph at the end of the evening.

Mulligan’s quartet gig may have been terrific but my memories of it were immediately swept aside by the tidal wave of excitement generated by the electrifying performance of his Concert Jazz Band on the last night of the festival. This amazing ensemble swung like crazy and played every number as if for the first time – tightly executed arrangements with red-hot solos by the likes of Seldon Powell (tenor sax), Bill Charlap (piano), Barry Ries (trumpet) and of course Mulligan himself, who barely rested. As Dave Brubeck points out in the fascinating documentary, Listen:Gerry Mulligan, made after Mulligan’s death, he was incapable of standing still and not playing.

Among the many gems played that night in Glasgow were such late-era Mulligan numbers as the joyful opener Sun on the Stairs, Walk on the Water (on which he played a serene soprano sax), Song For Strayhorn and 42nd and Broadway as well as a magnificent version of Georgia on My Mind.

But the piece that had everyone in that audience on the edge of their seats was the one which had been commissioned by the jazz festival. As with his K-4 Pacific, Mulligan drew on his love of trains (as well as on a theme from his Octet for Sea Cliff) to create a rollercoaster ride of a composition for Glasgow. The Flying Scotsman is breathtakingly evocative and exciting – a thrilling, dramatic piece that gathers momentum and builds to a spine-tingling climax.

It prompted a euphoric reaction from the audience (though I seem to remember there being some criticism the next day that it had been too short – the bean-counters clearly didn’t think it was value for money; never mind that it was a beautifully crafted composition with not a wasted or redundant note), and was one of the main reasons for my insistence, the following May, on setting up tape recorders all over the house to make sure we didn’t miss a note of the Concert Jazz Band gig when it was finally broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

To my knowledge, Mulligan only recorded The Flying Scotsman once: on the newly reissued quartet album Lonesome Boulevard, originally released in 1990. It certainly sounds great but it doesn’t have the excitement or the thrills of the full-band version. Which makes it all the more irritating that the recording of the 1988 Concert Jazz Band gig has never been released on CD (the following year’s Stan Getz concert, also recorded by the Beeb, has long been available on CD). Everyone should get to hear it.

Frankly, I would rather stay at home and listen to the still-electrifying Concert Jazz Band on the stage at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in 1988 than endure a live performance by a second-rate band in 2009… Gerry Mulligan ruined us Glaswegians for anybody else.

CODA

I got to hear Gerry Mulligan again, four years after the Glasgow Jazz Festival, when I was a student in Paris and he was headlining the La Villette Jazz Festival with his Re-birth of the Cool Band. That occasion I don’t remember so well, possibly because I got distracted by the social side of things – namely the members of the Newport Jazz Festival All-Stars who had secured me my ticket!

When, a couple of years later, I was invited to make my debut on radio, on BBC Radio Scotland’s Bebop to Hiphop, my first track was my all-time favourite – the sublime Shady Side from the Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges album. It was only after playing it that I learned that it’s my dad’s favourite too.

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Five star reviews

An awful lot of awfully good CDs have landed on my desk recently, and I’ve found myself giving one five-star review after another. A coincidence of CDs worthy of so many stars only happens once in a blue moon (ask Patrick Moore), so I thought it might be worth reproducing the reviews I wrote for Scotland on Sunday’s Review section here:

Johnny Varro Featuring Ken Peplowski: Two Legends of Jazz (Arbors Records ARCD 19363) Describing anyone who’s still alive as a legend is perhaps ill-advised, but this CD is so good that it’s easy to see why the record company got a bit carried away. Veteran pianist Johnny Varro and clarinettist Ken Peplowski make an ace team; it’s always a treat to hear the dynamic Peplowski in a small group setting, and on the 15 imaginatively chosen tracks here he’s to be found in duos, trios and full quartet (with drummer Joe Ascione and bassist Frank Tate). Download: Out of Nowhere, Love Locked Out

 

Madeleine Peyroux: Bare Bones (Decca 6132732) The sultry yet fragile-voiced Madeleine Peyroux might be excused for her long absence since her last album by the fact that for this CD, she wrote all the songs. Ironically, the opener, Instead, has the catchy, old-timey flavour associated with the tracks on her breakthrough album, 2004’s Careless Love, but the majority of the 11 songs are intensely personal, astonishingly intimate-sounding ballads which highlight the range of influence on Peyroux’s music. It’s uneven, raw and, in a couple of spots, misjudged, but overall it’s as seductive as Peyroux’s previous releases. Download: River of Tears, To Love You All Over Again

(I actually gave the Peyroux album four stars when I first reviewed it, but have since upgraded it)

 

Marty Grosz: Hot Winds, The Classic Sessions (Arbors Records ARCD 19379) Opportunities to hear the great American rhythm guitarist and singer Marty Grosz in Scotland have been disappointingly rare in recent years, so this new CD is a welcome treat. The 79-year-old is in his element, playing his own imaginative arrangements with a tight, swinging unit known as the Hot Winds – featuring regular Grosz cohorts Dan Block (clarinet), Scott Robinson (various horns) and Vince Giordano (string bass, bass sax etc). In his witty notes, Grosz says he’s often asked what “hot jazz” is. Well, this CD is the definition. Download: Rent Party Blues, I Just Couldn’t Take It Baby

 

Duke Heitger and Bernd Lhotzky: Doin’ the Voom Voom (Arbors Records ARCD 19382) For some CD-buyers, the bigger the band, the better the value – but this album is proof that the opposite is true: less is definitely more, especially when you have players of the calibre of the US trumpeter Duke Heitger and the German piano whiz Bernd Lhotzky. The 17 tracks on this CD are an tantalising blend of standards and lesser-heard numbers exhumed from the back catalogue of Duke Ellington, James P Johnson and several obscure composers; the ballads are particularly sublime, and highlight the fact that Heitger and Lhotzky are a perfect musical match. Download: Doin’ the Voom Voom, How Long Has This Been Going On

 

Ken Peplowski Meets Alan Barnes: Doodle Oodle (Woodville Records WVCD127) Anyone who heard them together at the Lockerbie Jazz Festival last year will know that the American clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski and Alan Barnes, the British clarinettist and player of several types of sax, make a brilliant team. That they relish each other’s musical company is evident in concert because one always invites the other to be a special guest, and it shines through just as strongly on this terrific CD, the ideal blend of unexpected tunes; swinging, lyrical playing and good, old-fashioned fun. Download: In Love in Vain, Shady Side*

* The  original Johnny Hodges-Gerry Mulligan recording of this Hodges composition is my all-time favourite single track – so I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a new version of it. However, Barnes and Peps’ version, with AB on alto and KP on tenor (rather than JH on alto and GM on baritone), stands up in its own right and actually complements the original. I know: I just played them back to back…

 

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