Category Archives: Appreciations

The Unknown History of Jazz Trombone, Part 3

This is the third part of my attempt to document the under-heard tradition of astounding jazz trombone work.  The first part of the series is here.  The second is here.  This installment is a departure from the past: there is less trombone playing (it’s really more of a vocal disk) on this album than the other things I’ve chosen to highlight, but it’s just too good a record for me to ignore here.

Think Well of Me
Jack Teagarden

I have a fascination with what happens when great artists get near the end of their run.  Late Beethoven string quartets come to mind as the archetypal example, but post-1960’s Lawrence Brown recordings, Johnny Hodges’ performance on “…and his mother called him Bill”, and Eric Dolphy’s last European recordings also fit the bill.  This recording, Teagarden’s second to last studio date, is filled with the gravitas which make these things such powerful documents.

The facts: Teagarden went into the studio in January of 1962 and ended up recording 11 songs, most of which were written by under-lauded composer Willard Robinson (best known for Old Folks, which Miles Davis recorded on the Someday My Prince Will Come record).  He’s backed by Don Goldie, a trumpeter who played in Teagarden’s last touring ensemble, a rhythm section, and a string orchestra which, in a twist of trombonistic fate,  was partially arranged by Bob Brookmeyer.

These songs are totally perfect for Teagarden – the lyrics are equal parts nostalgia, cynicism, and wisdom – and he sings and plays his heart out during the entire disk.  Check out the way he sings the bridge to the title track:

The way he sings “forget the past” in that example kills me every time.  Teagarden dedicated himself to his art – he sacrificed his health and his finances to be out on the road, and I can’t help but to hear this record as tinged with a little regret over past choices made.  He sounds like – and is – an old man looking back on his accomplishments, reflecting on past glory and tragedy.  And that’s what I love about artists in the late stages of their career – you can hear something that is impossible to simulate, no matter how many licks you practice in all 12 keys: it’s the grain of his experience rubbing up against our smooth youth.

In a Little Waterfront Cafe:

There is very little improvisation on this disk, but I don’t really miss it – the record is so beautiful as it is, and Teagarden’s occasional melodic trombone statements and Don Goldie’s embellishments add just enough.

I remember when I was a high schooler just getting into jazz, this record was totally unavailable.  I wanted to hear it because I was really interested in Bob Brookmeyer (this was when I was still on euphonium – I was interested in hearing every valve trombonist I could in order to see if I had to switch to the slide instrument).  I’m glad that I didn’t hear it then, because I think my young ears would have taken one listen to the string orchestra and then would have subsequently dismissed the whole album as commercial shlock (which it might be, although it’s also so much more).  It is, happily, available now through MP3 downloads on amazon.com and on Verve’s website.  I hope I’ve convinced you to get yourself a copy.

Postscript:

There is an amazing video of Jack Teagarden playing Basin Street Blues in 1963, the year that he died:

It’s a video that gives me goose bumps every time I watch it.  In some ways, Teagarden really seems to be phoning in his performance (at this point he’s probably played this arrangement of Basin Street Blues  hundreds of times), but you can’t argue with the look in his eyes as he’s singing, or with the effort he tries to hide as he’s playing the trombone.  Teagarden was a  master!

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The Unknown History of Jazz Trombone, Part 2

This is the second part of my attempt to document the under-heard tradition of astounding jazz trombone work.  The first part of the series is here.

In Paris, 1937
Dicky Wells

This LP documents a record date that Dicky Wells lead in Paris while he was on a European tour with the Teddy Hill band.  A year or two later Wells would join the Count Basie Orchestra and participate in some of the great canonical jazz records with Lester Young, Buck Clayton, and Basie’s All-American rhythm section.  Small group dates led by trombone players are incredibly rare in the 30’s, especially if the trombonist isn’t named Jack Teagarden.  The entire record features jazz trombone playing of the absolute highest order.

My personal history with Dicky Wells goes back to high school, when I was first discovering jazz.  Among the first three jazz recordings I got from the local public library was a Count Basie record that had a few Wells solos (the other two were a Louis Armstrong greatest hits record and a CD of great Fats Waller cuts).  My local library also had a copy of Wells’ quasi-autobiography called “Night People” which he narrated to historian Stanley Dance.  The ladies that ran the check out counter at Baraboo Public Library certainly got to know me very well over four years of nightly visits to pick up countless held jazz CDs.  However, during my college years, I forgot about Wells and focused on more contemporary trombone styles.

Then in grad school, when I told my teacher Anthony Coleman about my frustrations over playing with incredible virtuosic saxophonists, he reminded me of the Herculean task that Dicky Wells faced every night on the bandstand with Count Basie.  Night after night, after amazing Lester Young solos, he managed to stand up to play something on the trombone that wasn’t totally forgettable.  Something that had integrity.  Something that swung.  Amazing!  Lester Young may have changed the vocabulary of jazz improvisation, but Dicky Wells showed that there was always room for another unique voice to be heard.

This record features a relatively young Dicky Wells totally playing his butt off.  I love the infectious enthusiasm of the two opening tracks “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (when someone shouts “Yeah!” during the shout chorus, I practically can’t contain myself) and “Bugle Call Rag” (during which Django Reinhardt really lights a fire under the Wells’ solo).

They real centerpiece of the record, though, is “Dicky Wells Blues”, which has to be one of the longest recorded trombone solos before ~1946 (when J.J. Johnson started recording small group sides for Savoy).  It’s seven choruses of straight-ahead blues trombone playing, and the documentation of swing trombone style is totally priceless.  I’m working on memorizing it right now – I’ve made it through the first chorus, and the rest is a work-in-progress.  The experience of learning something off of an LP is particularly interesting – it makes you really respect the musicians that grew up in the LP era, who had to learn tunes off of their record player.  Believe me, it’s harder than using mp3s!

This record is pretty tough to find.  It’s usually up on Ebay, though if you go to your local record store, it might be under Django Reinhardt’s name (that’s where I found my copy, at Looney Tunes on Boylston Street in Boston).  Some tracks may also be available online – “Dicky Wells’ Blues” is available from Amazon, but I would strongly recommend getting the whole LP.  Like Ellington’s Unknown Sessions, this LP alone makes owning a record player worth the expense!
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Oh yeah, you can also hear it here:

(though you still really should check out the LP)

Postscript:  There is also a thing I hope every jazz trombonist is familiar with – Andre Hodeir’s assessment of Dicky Wells’ romantic imagination.  I leave it up to the reader to investigate further, but I’d recommend starting by reading Hodeir’s Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, avaliable at your local library.

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The Unknown History of Jazz Trombone, Part 1

Recently I’ve been busy studying the amazing history of jazz trombone – diving into deep tradition while searching for hidden treasures.  What I’ve discovered is that much of the music made by great trombone masters has yet to make it into the digital era.  Over the next few weeks I’m going to be posting about some of my favorite trombone LPs in an effort to raise awareness of these unsung heroes of Jazz music.

Unknown Session
Duke Ellington (w/ Lawrence Brown)

This record was made on July 14th, 1960, soon after Lawrence Brown rejoined the Duke Ellington Orchestra after a 10 year hiatus.  It also features stellar performances from Ray Nance, Johnny Hodges, and Harry Carney.  Brown, perhaps because of his return to the organization, is featured extensively on the first side of the LP.  He plays with such incredible grace and confidence that I’ve come to hear this record as one of the greatest recorded jazz trombone performances in the history of the music.  It breaks my heart that it isn’t more well known.

Black Beauty and Mood Indigo are my two favorite tracks.  On Black Beauty you can hear Ellington quietly chortling his approval in the background during a particularly swinging ensemble section, and then Brown plays the melody in such an individualistic way that it seems more like recomposition than interpretation, even though he pretty much sticks to the script.  It has to be heard to be believed.  Mood Indigo is Brown’s real tour de force, though.  Starting with a few bars of melody and quickly evolving into embellishment and filigree, Brown shows his true mastery of the jazz trombone style over his chorus and a half of improvisation.

I first discovered this record when I was writing a paper on Mood Indigo for Anthony Coleman’s Duke Ellington class at NEC.  I headed down to Firestone Library and started getting as many LPs and CDs as I could, determined to listen to many many different versions of the composition.  The first recording I put on the turntable was LP 865 – the Unknown Session – an inconspicuous record if ever there was one, and imagine my surprise when Brown’s trombone playing leapt out of the headphones.  Needless to say, any research plans for the afternoon were derailed as I listened to Brown’s performance over and over. 

I’ve searched, and I’m pretty sure that the only way to hear this record is to buy it on LP.  I think, for a developing trombonist, that it might be worth it to buy a turntable solely to listen to this record.  Fortunately there are enough copies out there, that it’s almost always avaliable on Ebay.  It’s a masterpiece!
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I would also like to take this opportunity to remind folks that next week I am sharing a solo concert with alto saxophonist James Wylie.  I think it’s going to be a really fun time, and I’m excited to hear what James is going to bring to the table.  Please come out if you are free that night!

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March 7th

Randy Pingrey Trio/Quartet at the Kaji Aso Studio

Scribe – for Morton Feldman

Thriving – for Anton Webern

Short Notes – for Anthony Braxton

Grock (Solo Trombone) – for Luciano Berio

Long Notes – for Anthony Braxton

Four Decembers – for Earle Brown

Randy Pingrey – trombone
Ezra Weller – trumpet
Chris Veilleux – alto sax, flute
and special guest – Kathy Olson – flute

On March 7th, the Randy Pingrey Trio +1 opened for Shaw Pong Liu’s amazing Ligeti string quartet project.  I couldn’t have been happier with the way the evening turned out – Ezra, Chris, and Kathy all played amazingly (check out the end of Short Notes for some pretty sick ensemble playing), and it was the first time I heard Ligeti’s first String Quartet (it was stunning).  As always, thank you very much for listening!

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Stone Age Rhumba – Sneak Peak!

The December 10th Rutman’s hit is quickly approaching for the Olson Pingrey Quartet!  Kathy, Mark, and I had a lovely rehearsal last night and I thought I’d post a sample of one of the new tunes we’re going to play.  It’s called Stone Age Rhumba.  Here are the first two minutes:

Stone Age Rhumba

Kathy Olson – bari sax
Randy Pingrey – trombone
Mark Zaleski – bass
Recorded on December 8th, 2009

(by the way – the piece features an extensive drum part – which you’ll have to come to the gig to hear!)

My intention for Stone Age Rhumba was to write a tribute to the great trombonist Bill Harris while continuing the vibe of other pieces I had written for this ensemble (this piece shares a few motivic ideas with my piece Low Contrast, which you can listen to here).  Harris was the featured trombone soloist of the Woody Herman Big Band starting in the 40’s.  His technique, imagination, and sense of humor were totally unique and second to none, and his playing has been a recent source of inspiration for me. 

Harris’ most famous feature in the Herman big band was the tune Bijou by Ralph Burns.  It was once described by Woody Herman as a “stone age rhumba”, which is where the title of the piece comes from.

And as one final reminder – the Olson Pingrey Quartet plays on December 10th at Rutman’s Violins in Boston, MA.  We’ll start at 8PM and play until 9:15 or so.  There’s a $10 suggested donation, and we would really love for everyone to come out.  Thank you!

P.S. The gig has happened, and you can listen to the whole thing, including the full version of Stone Age Rhumba right here.

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A Short History of Trombone and Saxophone

So I have this gig coming up with my killin’ bari-sax-playing sweetie, Kathy Olson, which was partially inspired by the legendary Gerry Mulligan/Bob Brookmeyer quartet.  And it got me thinking about the history of great trombone-saxophone pairings throughout jazz.

Let me first say that playing with a saxophone player poses unique aesthetic questions to the trombone player, and it’s something that I’ve had to think a lot about in the past few years.  Think about it this way: imagine you are the trombonist Dickey Wells, in Count Basie’s big band in the 1930’s.  Herschal Evans and Lester Young are dueling every night, re-inventing the jazz vocabulary on the band stand right before your eyes.  When it’s time for the trombone solo after choruses of brilliant saxophonics what can you play that won’t be instantly forgettable?  What can you play that will convince an audience that you have something valuable to add to the conversation?  It’s a musical mindbender that persists to this day – when I’m on a jazz gig, and there is a tenor saxist who shreds right before my solo, I think to myself as I step up to the mic: “whelp, here’s old Dickey Wells standing up to take his little solo”.  Dickey Wells’ victory is that he managed to find his own vocabulary amid all the saxophone posturing, and he was able to play solos that weren’t instantly forgettable.

So there’s the rub.  How can saxophonists and trombonists ever get along?  Well, fortunately there are a couple of examples in the history that lead the way.  The ones that pop out immediately to my mind (one for each voice in the saxophone family):

Curtis Fuller & Benny Golson
Bob Brookmeyer & Gerry Mulligan
Roswell Rudd & Steve Lacy
George Lewis & Anthony Braxton*

Each pair dealt with the issues in their own ways: Curtis Fuller played it cool against Benny Golson’s heat.  Brookmeyer and Mulligan shared vocabulary and a similar sensibility about timbre, and they embraced counterpoint.  Lacy’s clever terseness matched well with Rudd’s humorous generosity.  And Braxton and Lewis were such monsters that they could make anything work.

Anyways, that is what’s been on my mind recently.  It’s a pleasure to work with Kathy on it, and you should check out the gig we are playing at La Luna Cafe in Cambridge, MA on August 21st at 10 PM.  I will, as always, put recordings on this site as soon as they’re available.

 

*And there are also a few pairs in newer music.  Like:

Wolter Weirbos & Frank Gratkowski
Nils Wogram & Hayden Chisholm

Can you come up with any other examples?  I’m having trouble thinking of current long-standing pairs in more conventional genres, but I’m sure that they’re around.

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Mississippi John Hurt: An Appreciation

I was coming home from a big band gig in Maine this evening – we were listening to music in the car – and Mississippi John Hurt came through the speakers.  I had discovered Hurt back in February or so, when I was going through old delta blues records, searching for a vibe of authenticity that I felt was absent in my own playing.  I checked out lots of amazing artists, and the three that stood out the most  to me during those winter months were Charlie Patton, Lightning Hopkins, and Mississippi John Hurt.

Hurt was particularly special to me.  When you listen to really good blues musicians, a lot of them sound like they lived a really hard life – Patton sounds like his voice can just barely croak out the necessary syllables, Sun House sounds as if he’s tearing his guitar apart – pulling each string right to its breaking point.  Hurt is different.  He sounds normal and gentle, not like the good-fer-nothing deviant musician type, but like the type of guy that quietly lives his life going to work during the week and to church during the weekend.

And if he sounds like it, it’s because that’s what he did.  After cutting a series of sides for Okeh Records in 1928, the Great Depression (and probably his disposition for family life) put his music carreer on hold until the folk revival movement of the 1960’s restarted it – and he became a real star.  For the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s he was a share cropper and weekend gig musician in Avalon, Mississippi.

But most important of all is the music.  Listening to his stuff is reassuring to me: he’s not necessarily hip like blues musicians typically are.  His voice is soft and delicate and his guitar style is very precise and meticulous.  He was living proof that you don’t need to be a hipster scumbag to make interesting music, that people who weren’t cool also had a right to express themselves, and that expression could sound good and interesting to other people.

Mississippi John Hurt

A few online resources:

Mississippi John Hurt on Youtube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvRxA8gR7bw

Mississippi John Hurt on archive.org:
http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=creator:%22Mississippi%20John%20Hurt%22

“This is the hammer that killed John Henry, but it won’t kill me…”

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