Thursday, June 26, 2008

Motown Jazz?

Of course we all know that there was great Hard Bop in Detroit. The list of names speaks for itself, Barry Harris, Hank, Elvin, and Thad Jones, Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell, Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd, Frank Foster, etc. But even as a die-hard-bop fan I was surprised to learn, on one of my forays through cyberspace, that Berry Gordy at Motown released eleven albums of jazz on one of his subsidiary labels. As Mr. Spock would say . . . fascinating.

To date I've listened to about eight of them and, while the musicianship is good, the recording quality is woefully inadequate, especially on the trio albums by pianist Johnny Griffith (not Griffin). Pianist Earl Washington fares a bit better on his albums. Trombonist George Bohanon's bossa nova album is far more bop than latin--a good thing IMHO--and there is a Jonah Jones LP that leans a bit too much in the Pete Fountain/Al Hirt faux jazz direction for my taste. But the real find is the set by alto/tenor saxophonist Lefty Edwards. Again, the recording is poorly done, but the music is fantastic. If only he'd been in New York with Rudy VanGelder, this one would probably have been a classic. On a set of mostly standards, Edwards shows a distinctive Frank Foster style, easily mixing swing and bop phrasing. The standout track for me is his interpretation of "Goodnight, My Love," his double-time work on the alto bringing instantly to mind Sonny Stitt.

Evidently Berry Gordy was able to entice some of the remaining local jazz musicians in Detroit to come and play on Motown sessions by offering them recording sessions of their own on the Motown Jazz label. It would be nice to see if someone could take the master tapes--assuming they still exist--and clean them up for CD reissue. Until then you can find the LPs on the fullundie music blog. While maybe not keepers, worth a download or two.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dinah Washington - Dinah Jams!

Though she'll always be know as the Queen of the Blues, I'm not shy about making the argument for Dinah Washington as one of the all-time great jazz singers. Certainly she's always been my favorite. Sure, she doesn't have the range and musicality of Sarah Vaughn, or the fragile intangible that is Billie Holiday. What she does possess, however, is a swaggering confidence in her own abilities that that threatens, at times, to overshadow the song itself. Rather than than finger-in-her-dimple ebullience of Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah isn't afraid to put one hand firmly on her hip and with the other to wag that finger right in your face.

The voice is really the thing, though. At once nasal and lacking in dynamics, it is also the most sublime of instruments, in the same way that blues shouters from Jimmy Rushing and Joe Williams to soul-men like Lou Rawls and Ray Charles have been able to make incredibly fine jazz albums. While Dinah began her jazz in less than stellar form, beginning with risqué blues numbers backed by the Lucky Thompson and Illinois Jacquet orchestras, then working through dreary string and chorus-ladened Mitch Miller arrangements, she found her form on her mid-fifties EmArcy sessions.

The pinnacle of this era is easily her 1955 session For Those In Love. Joining her is an especially sympathetic group of musicians including Clark Terry, Jimmy Cleveland, Paul Quinchette, Cecil Payne, and Wynton Kelly. With arrangements by Quincy Jones it is a sterling performance. One jazz classic after another is reeled off by Washington with what are arguably definitive performances of Cole Porter's "I Get A Kick Out Of You," and the Rodgers-Hart "I Could Write A Book." But the gem of the session is, without a doubt, her haunting performance of "You Don't Know What Love Is."

One year earlier Dinah was in the studio with an augmented Brown-Roach unit (Clifford Brown, Harold Land, Junior Mance, George Morrow and Max Roach) to record Dinah Jams, a live-in-the-studio LP for EmArcy that I have samples of to whet your appetite for my own personal "Queen of Jazz." The first is a classic example of her ballad delivery on "Come Rain or Come Shine," wonderfully robust and vulnerable at the same time-with a gospel "hallelujah" middle chorus that elicits hollers and applause from the studio audience. The second is an equally explosive "There Is No Greater Love," with a trumpet-like smear that turns the notion of a ballad being soft on its head. Check out some of her work on EmArcy and see if Dinah doesn't turn your head as well.